PROVIDENCE — Darren Austin was getting his car inspected at a dealership Tuesday when he saw news that the smoke from wildfires in Nova Scotia had reached Rhode Island.
When he ran outside, he saw not just the plume, but ash falling on the cars in the lot. It was, Austin said, a bit shocking.
“That’s never good, when you’re seeing flakes of ash blowing around,” Austin said.
Austin is an air quality specialist at the state Department of Environmental Management, so he’s accustomed to tracking these sorts of air quality events. But the visible effects of this fire in particular were more in-your-face than usual — you could see and even smell it all around Rhode Island and Massachusetts — and came at the end of a month when many days that should have had bright blue skies were instead stark white from fires in other parts of North America.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued an air quality alert on Tuesday, warning of elevated fine particle levels, before the smoky haze moved out overnight.
These sorts of events might not be as shocking in the years to come: New England is looking at a potentially smokier future, according to local experts, with climate change contributing to conditions ripe for wildfires. It’s not just increasing the risk in places like Canada and the western United States, where smoke from fires can and already does reach places like Rhode Island, but here in the state, too.
It’s tricky to point to climate change as the direct cause of any one particular event, but experts say climate change is making for drier and warmer conditions, and even causing changes in the populations of tree-killing insects. Taken together, these factors make the state more vulnerable to fires.
According to Ambarish Karmalkar, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, wildfire activity in the northeastern United States is fairly rare because of regular rain or snow throughout the year. But “increasing temperatures due to climate change, combined with extended dry spells could produce favorable conditions for wildfire activity,” Karmalkar said in an e-mail.
Karmalkar published a study in Nature Climate Change showing the coastal Northeast, including Rhode Island, has experienced especially dramatic warming over the last century, which “suggests serious implications if these trends were to continue in the future,” Karmalkar said.
For air quality, that can mean a sort of two steps forward, one step back sort of progress: While air quality in general has gotten better over the years because of improved emissions standards, Austin explained, that progress could be undermined by more frequent and severe wildfires — in part because smoke can make ozone worse. On Tuesday, Rhode Island’s air quality was considered unhealthy due to the Nova Scotia wildfires.
It’s not unusual for the effects of wildfires in other parts of North America to reach Rhode Island. What makes this one stand out is the fire’s relative proximity to the state and that the wind was blowing in the right direction to send the plumes here, closer to the ground than the typical wildfire impacts.
But in a climate-altered future, Rhode Island and the rest of the region will also have new and even more direct risks, with a longer local fire season than the typical mid-March to mid-April timeframe. That’s when snow melts and the sun shines through to the kindling-heavy forest floor without live tree leaves getting in the way. In the last half-decade, according to state data, there have been fewer fire starts in Rhode Island, but they’ve burned more total acreage, according to Patrick MacMeekin, wildland fire supervisor for the DEM. A fire that burned in Exeter was reportedly the largest in the state since 1942.
“We’re fortunate in that this is not a new challenge for places like the West Coast and the southeastern United States,” MacMeekin said. “We have good models that we can look to on how to manage our fire risk. These are going to be really important in the next couple of years in the region.”
Insect populations are already playing a direct sort of role, MacMeekin said. The range of the southern pine beetle is expanding, even a little into Rhode Island. The beetles can kill trees and cause more fires, MacMeekin said.
One thing that’s already happening to address these challenges is a big increase in prescribed fire, MacMeekin said. Among other things, the deliberate but controlled and supervised setting of fires can remove fuel for wildfires from the environment.
The concerns are particularly acute in some of the more forested areas of the state, which state Representative Mike Chippendale, a Foster Republican and his chamber’s minority leader, represents. Rhode Island’s forested lands are in a part of their life cycle where forestry management is necessary, Chippendale said. (He said he was not making causal assertions about a changing climate.) But the DEM, which does an incredible job with limited resources, is overwhelmed, he said.
“It may not be ‘politically sexy’ to spend money on something as mundane and ‘out of view’ as forestry management, but if our hot, dry August sees forest fires as did our April, I assure you the issue will be on the forefront of a lot of Rhode Island minds — particularly if fires strike into residential areas,” Chippendale said in an e-mail.