Dry weather, wind gusts raise risks of wildfires

HUDSON—If we want to see the May flowers that April showers are supposed to bring, then we better hope for a good dose of rain soon.

The first two days of this week, the National Weather Service issued “special weather statements” for a region that encompasses Columbia County warning of an “elevated risk of fire spread.”

The statement for April 5 said, “dry weather, sunshine, humidity levels between 20 and 35% and northwest winds occasionally gusting 25 to 35 mph is [sic] expected today across eastern New York, western Massachusetts and northwest Connecticut. All of these parameters suggested an elevated risk of fire spread, especially from late morning through the afternoon. Use caution if handling any potential ignition sources, including machinery, cigarettes and matches.”

The April 6 statement was similar with humidity levels between 15 and 30% and northwest wind gusts to around 20 mph across the same area—also including southern Vermont.

Jennifer Vogt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Albany, told The Columbia Paper by phone this week that all of eastern New York and western New England are experiencing below normal precipitation, which includes rain and the water equivalent of snow. The Lake George Region is currently on the lowest level of the drought monitor.

At the Albany Forecast Office, “We are 2½ inches below normal,” said Ms. Vogt, adding that “since January 1 till now (April 5) the normal value is just under 8½ inches and we’re sitting at 6 inches total.”

Most of the winter precipitation fell in December, which does not count toward the 2021 yearly average. “There were no big snowstorms after that and March was pretty dry.

“Now winds are gusty due to a strong system off the northeast coast. It’s fire weather out today,” she noted.

The fire concern is sparked because “it has not greened up yet” leaving the earth “really dry on the surface.”

“Low humidity and above normal temperatures combined with the wind would cause a fire to spread easily today,” warranting the issuance of the special weather statement; “Though we are not typically exposed to wildfires here,” said Ms. Vogt.

Asked if climate change has anything to do with these abnormally dry conditions, the meteorologist said, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Office plans to issue a new set of climate normals on May 4. The NWS is a federal agency under the NOAA umbrella.

The April 7 NWS forecast says “dry and seasonably warm weather will continue through the end of the week as an area of high pressure builds across the region. Rain chances increase later this weekend and into early next week as a storm system approaches.”

Columbia County Fire Coordinator George Keeler could not talk to The Columbia Paper the morning of April 6 because he was tied up at the scene of a structure fire at 51 Block Street in Philmont. The fire reportedly began as a brush fire and one of the buildings damaged in the blaze when it spread housed multiple families, who were displaced by the blaze. Fourteen fire companies answered the call.

Reached April 7, Mr. Keeler said the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) annual burn ban is in effect through May 14. Since the ban took effect there have been some small brush fires but “no big issues” here in the county. The fire coordinator responds to all mutual aid blazes in the county.

Prior to the start of the burn ban there were multiple brush fires, such as the night of March 12, when seven fire companies, a rescue squad, fire coordinators and a forest ranger were called to an eight-acre brush fire in the vicinity of North Mountain and Millerbrook roads in Copake. According to a DEC press release “fire crews were able to contain it by constructing a fire line with water support. Due to heavy winds, hot spots flared up on the hilltop, extending mop up operations.”

The burn ban was put into effect in an effort to reduce the number of spring brush fires. For more information go to: https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/58519.html

Mr. Keeler echoed Ms. Vogt’s assessment of conditions, noting new growth has not yet taken hold and wooded areas are still brown. “We get a little rain, the wind blows and dries it right back out,” he said.

In his second year as fire coordinator after 15 years as a deputy coordinator, Mr. Keeler urged residents to abide by the burn ban, especially given current windy, dry conditions. “History tells us that if not caught early, brush fires can get out of control pretty quickly,” he said.

To contact Diane Valden email

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