Mild New England winter has payback

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BOSTON (AP) – Even thin-skinned New Englanders couldn’t complain about last winter, with temperatures here hitting 60 degrees in January. Portland saw the state’s sixth warmest winter on record.

But now, it seems, the region is paying for its meek winter in almost Biblical terms: fires, disease and insects. While no one is predicting locusts or frogs for June, the benefits of frozen ground and heaps of snow are becoming increasingly clear.

Sparse snowfall has helped fuel larger brush fires. Health workers are bracing for a surge in Lyme Disease because more ticking-carrying rodents survived winter. And the relatively warm weather allowed a larger number of bugs to survive the season, prompting fears of a summer thick with black files, mosquitoes and invasive insects such as the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid.

The poppy seed-sized bug, which came from the Osaka-region in Japan, sucks the sap from hemlocks, causing the trees to wither and eventually die. This year, early studies show that only 50 percent of the adelgids died over the winter, giving the bugs a chance to thrive.

“A cold and snowy winter can allow the snow pack to linger longer,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Neil Strauss in Taunton, Mass. “That would increase the moisture level, keeping fire danger lower.”

Last winter’s light snowfall, coupled with a dry March and April, has helped spring brush fires spread more quickly, said Jim DiMaio, chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Forest Fire Control and Forestry. With this season only half over, the blazes have already charred over 2,600 acres, a mark that has eclipsed the typical 12 month average by almost 1,000 acres.

That lack of snow and the higher temperatures also means that more white foot mice and chipmunks will be frolicking on forest floors and spreading Lyme Disease to thirsty deer ticks.

“If the winters are warmer, I think these ticks and other entities are in places they weren’t in before,” Pat Smith, president of the Lyme Disease Association.

Activists are on a campaign to raise awareness about the arthritis-like symptoms as the warmer weather approaches, the most active time for deer ticks, which transmit the disease to humans.

Last winter, the mild days might have meant no hat or a lighter jacket, but its lasting impact this spring and summer will be something very different.

“More bugs, more black flies, more mosquitoes,” said Tom Hawley, a NWS meteorologist in Gray, Maine.

Boston had its sixth warmest January since 1872. Hartford, Conn., was a full two degrees above average. Portland was more than three ticks above normal.

While having to swat at more no-see-um files on hikes may be one thing, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is quite another.

In the United States, the cold had stopped the northern advance of the insect in Connecticut, according to Joe Elkinton, an Entomology professor at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in forest insects.

Deep freezes usually kill 90 percent of the adelgids, which form wool-like cocoons for protection from the elements. While the bugs have been in Massachusetts for a decade, the cold has kept the numbers low enough to halt any significant affect trees.

“All we need is a few warm winters and this will take off,” Elkinton said. “Vast forests have been devastated by this insect.”

Elkinton, for one, is hoping he has to bundle up a little more next January.

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