Session 7: Wildfires in Maine: Where We’ve Been, How We’re Preparing, and What Comes Next

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Morning Session – 8:30AM-10:30AM
Arnold Room, First Floor, North Wing

  • Foresters: This session is approved for two Cat 1 CFEs through the Society for American Foresters. Sign-up sheets are located in the session room.

Session Co-Chairs
David Ludwig, Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
Kent Nelson, Maine Forest Service

Although wildfires are often thought of as an issue for the Western United States, 2023 proved that wildfire poses a continent-wide risk which is increased by climate change. Nova Scotia saw their largest wildfires in recorded history, with over 60,000 acres burned in May and June of 2023. Quebec and other eastern Canadian provinces saw even more damaging wildfires. Smoke from those and other wildfires blanketed Maine for much of the summer, prompting concerns for health and air quality. Maine and eastern Canada are similarly vulnerable to wildfire, and the time for prevention and preparation is now.

State and local leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and landowners all have roles to play in wildfire prevention, fuels reduction, and mitigation. This year, Maine implemented stricter burn laws to reduce accidental ignitions. Maine Forest Service, the Land Use Planning Commission, and others are increasing their public outreach surrounding wildfire prevention and mitigation. Unprecedented federal funding opportunities have sparked growing interest in large-scale wildfire prevention across the state, and ambitious community projects are being planned. Multiple agencies and NGOs are working to restore fire-adapted landscapes in Maine with prescribed fire and other treatments.

Session Schedule


Should We Worry About Wildfires in Maine?

Andrew M. Barton
University of Maine at Farmington

Recent record-breaking wildfires, especially in Canada, have raised the specter of wildfire in Maine. Large-scale, catastrophic wildfire in the state is unlikely, but, like a powerful hurricane, the impact could be dire. Wildfires pose direct risks to people, property, and ecosystems, but also can indirectly degrade air quality and emit high levels of carbon dioxide that contribute to climate change. Maine has many houses in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and 19% of the state’s more than 17 million forest acres are considered WUI. These patterns make Maine particularly vulnerable if a large, severe wildfire were to occur. In this presentation, I’ll first review the fundamentals of fire meteorology and fire ecology, focusing on the fire triangle and drivers of wildfire frequency and severity. Then, I’ll summarize the history and the incomplete paleohistory of wildfire in Maine. Finally, I’ll assess the future risk of wildfire in the state.

9:00AM – 9:30AM

The Effects of Climate Change on Wildfires in New England

Erin Lane
USDA Northeast Climate Hub and North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange

Globally, the escalation of drought conditions is attributed to climate change, leading to a rise in both the frequency and severity of wildfires. In the northeastern United States, the warming average temperatures are yielding increased precipitation compared to other regions. As we experience increasing rainfall during all seasons, we sometimes notice intermittent dry periods between the storms. This prompts the question: Are these dry spells also increasing with climate change? Drought is complex and the dynamics are evolving with our climate. Contrary to concerns, analyzing weather station data, trends, and projections for our region does not reveal an increase in drought conditions on a broad scale, but short-term dry spells can still be cause for concern. We leverage hydroclimatic data sourced from the Applied Climate Information System, the Drought Risk Atlas of the National Drought Mitigation Center, and the Interactive Atlas of the National Climate Assessment. Exploring the access and interpretation of drought data in our regional context help us to understand potential impacts. We will discuss how the current and projected climate trends for our region might influence the seasonality, occurrence, risk and management of wildfire.

9:30AM – 10:00AM

Overview of Wildfire Suppression/Prevention in Maine and Grant Opportunities

Kent Nelson (1), Matt Gomes (2)
1. Forest Ranger Specialist, Maine Forest Service
2. Maine Forest Service Regional Ranger (retired); Wildfire Risk Reduction contractor

The Maine Forest Service (MFS) has been protecting Maine’s 17 million acres of forests from wildfire since 1891. Historically, Maine has had several large wildfires, but in recent times, an average of 600 fires burn about 500 acres each year. Despite the rainy fire season in 2023, when comparing recent five year averages, we still see a 25% increase in the numbers of fires. 

To combat these increases in fire occurrence, the MFS has increased its wildfire readiness and use of technology in fire prevention and detection. We currently have five helicopters that are primarily used for reconnaissance and suppression as well as transporting firefighters and equipment to remote areas. On the ground, the Maine Forest Service has trucks capable of transporting thousands of gallons of water and each ranger carries a fire load with fire suppression tools. Many Rangers also carry heat-seeking drones for finding small fires and use handheld devices for recording GIS data.

The MFS also has developed wildfire risk reduction programs that combine both fire prevention education and hazardous fuels mitigation. Rangers learn from science-based research how structures ignite and use that knowledge to educate homeowners how they can reduce the risk of their home igniting from a nearby wildfire. 

Looking ahead, the effects of climate change are likely to increase the number of wildfires in Maine. In 2020, two statewide droughts nearly doubled the number of fires. As more structures are being built within the wildland urban interface, their risk of igniting increases as well. To counter these increases, the MFS is encouraging Maine communities to apply for the USDA Forest Service’s new Community Wildfire Defense Grant (CWDG). The purpose of the CWDG is to assist at-risk local communities with planning and mitigating against the threat of wildfire near homes and structures. The grant can help in fire planning, wildfire prevention education and hazardous fuels reduction.

Each grant lasts up to five years. During the first round of CWDG grants in 2022, $197 million was awarded for 99 projects across 22 states. MFS and partners have submitted four CWDG applications for the most recent funding round; awards may be announced prior to this presentation.

Communities identified as having high or very high wildfire hazard potential, low-income, and/or have been impacted by a severe disaster are given priority for funding. The size of the communities can range from homeowners’ associations, lake or road associations to municipal, county, tribal, and state governments.

There are two primary project types for which the grant provides funding:  

  • The development or revision of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). 
  • The implementation of projects described in a CWPP that is less than ten years old. 

CWDG funding can also be used for:

  • Creating fire breaks to prevent the spread of wildfire near values at risk.
  • Hazardous fuels mitigation work (brush removal) at the community level.
  • RX burns and/or training for RX burns in wildland urban interface areas.
  • Projects involving installing dry hydrants and purchasing protective equipment/fire equipment will also be considered, but must relate directly to a community-based hazardous fuel reduction project stated in a CWPP. 

Up to 25% match is required for projects, but underserved communities can request the match be waived. In-kind services (such as homeowner volunteer time @ $30 / hour) can be used for match.

10:00AM – 10:30AM

Roundtable Discussion

Bryan McLellan (1), David Daniel (2), Kent Nelson (3)

  1. Fire Chief Bryan McLellan, Surry Fire Department.  
  2.  Orono Fire Inspector
  3.  Forest Ranger Specialist, Maine Forest Service

This roundtable discussion will include fire department officers, forest rangers and conference participants. We will bring in the fire department perspective and help reinforce the importance of developing Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs). There will also be opportunities to take questions from participants and discuss the implications of climate change on wildfire preparedness in Maine. 

The Maine Forest Service (MFS) has worked with municipal fire departments on wildfire prevention and developing CWPPs for nearly twenty years. These fire plans are the key to a successful community wildfire prevention program and help communities become eligible for new federal grant programs.

The purpose of a CWPP is to identify and prioritize areas of risk within a community and develop specific plans on how to mitigate the risk. After initial meetings with a town and fire department, Maine Forest Rangers work with fire department members to complete structural and vegetative wildfire risk assessments throughout the community. The results of these risk assessments are then used to develop recommendations for mitigation. Some examples of mitigation include fire breaks, forest fuel reduction near homes or along narrow roads, and improvements to water supplies for fire suppression. 

Both the Surry and Orono Fire Departments have worked with the MFS to conduct wildfire risk assessments in their communities. They also have experience relaying to town managers/boards and homeowners the importance of planning for potential increases in wildfires in Maine, especially within the wildland urban interface (where homes are built in forested areas).