GUEST COLUMN: Change of Seasons – Winter to Wildfire

Credit: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
One of the larger recent New York wildfires occurred in 2016 at Sam’s Point in the Shawangunks.
Credit: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation One of the larger recent New York wildfires occurred in 2016 at Sam’s Point in the Shawangunks.

By John Rowen
For The Daily Gazette

Drought and wildfires have pummeled California and the American West with a one-two punch.

In California, wildfires have popped up in many locations in the last few months, even though wildfire season is technically over.

In the last month, many National Weather Service’s daily forecasts have mentioned fire danger elsewhere in the nation.

It is tempting to think that droughts and fires cannot happen here — especially since the Capital Region has had a wet year.

But New York can be a wildfire-prone place.


Wildfires, a term applying to fires in both forests and grasslands, is a vital concern; over two thirds of New York’s land mass is forested.

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But as recently as late September, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had the Capital Region in a “drought watch,” the first of four stages of increasing drought severity.

The drought watch occurred, despite above average summer rain; the DEC uses a combination of rainfall, reservoir/lake levels, groundwater levels and stream flows to calculate when New York communities are heading for drought.

The state experienced severe droughts in the 1960s and 1980s.

Those two droughts were so severe that New York City supplemented its reservoir system by pumping water from the Hudson River, at Chelsea in the Hudson Highlands, into one of the aqueducts that carries its drinking water from famously pure reservoirs in the Catskills.

New York does not experience the same kinds of wildfires as occur out West.

Typically, the state receives 28 to 60 inches of rain annually and it falls throughout the year, rather than during a rainy season as is the case in much of the West.

Summer humidity, which drives a person crazy, keeps landscapes wetter than is the case in more arid parts of the West.

And even with the depredations of the tree-killing emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid, New York forests have significantly less standing dead wood than do western forests, where the pine bark beetle has killed tens of thousands of trees.

Climate change will affect water supplies and fire risk in the State.

But the extent of its effects are not yet certain.

The DEC website reports the state has experienced nearly 81,000 wildfires between 2003 and 2017.

During this period in Capital Region counties, 0.09 to 18 wildfires per square mile occurred; four of these fires consumed 10 or more acres.

The 1995 Sunrise Fire on Long Island had flames up to 150 feet high and burned an estimated 4,500 acres. In 1899, 1903 and 1908, wildfires burned, respectively, 79,000, 464,000 and 368,000 acres in the Adirondacks.

People cause 95% of wildfires in New York; lightning strikes cause the remaining 5%.

The DEC’s website states the biggest cause of wildfires started by people is “debris burning,” with arson and campfire accidents tied for second place. Children, smokers, “equipment” and railroads also ignite wildfires.


The best response to drought and wildfire is prevention.

With drought, water saving plumbing fixtures cut demand and help when things dry out.

Metering water use and aggressively searching for leaks in the system also flattens demand.

The DEC regulations ban open burning each spring, this year from March 16 through May 14.

Since this ban was enacted in 2010, DEC estimates wildfires started by debris burning have declined by 46 percent.

If your property is forested, you can use landscaping to reduce fire risk.

The Firewise section of the DEC website ( ) explains how to keep property “lean, clean and green.”

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The Firewise section also has advice about protecting homes and driveways/access roads to help prevent fire damage:

• If you build a fire or campfire, never leave it unattended. Even a small breeze could cause the fire to spread quickly.

• Clear flammable materials from around where the fire will occur.

• Have a garden hose, shovel, water bucket, or other means to extinguish the fire close at hand. Drown the fire with water. Make sure all embers, coals, and sticks are wet.

• With a fire ring, move rocks as there may be burning embers underneath.

• When burning wood or brush, do not burn on a windy day.

•Check and obey all local laws and ordinances.

• Burn early in the morning when humidity is high and winds are low.

• Keep piles to be burned small, adding small quantities of material as burning progresses.

• With campfires, use an existing campfire ring when available.

•Build them away from overhanging branches, steep slopes, rotten stumps, logs, dry grass, and leaves.

•Pile extra wood away from the fire.

In especially fire-prone parts of the state, DEC forest rangers, local fire department and other state agencies such as the departments of correctional services and transportation have emergency plans in place and conduct drills.

When a large fire breaks out, the Incident Command System (ICS) process establishes a single Incident Commander and a process for managing fire-fighting resources.

ICS ensures all fire departments and state agencies are coordinated and make the minutes count in containing and stopping the fire.

But the main similarity between fires in the West and in New York becomes evident when a fire breaks out.

Firefighters in both parts of the U.S. are equally trained and skilled.

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They will battle a fire to its end, with the same determination and bravery.

John Rowen of Albany is a columnist and author who writes about environmental policy issues. He previously served in state government in various environmental roles with the state Department of Transportation and state Division of the Budget.

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