Rain fails to dampen risk of fires in New England

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April arrived Saturday with a smattering of showers across northern New England that failed to ease the threat of wildfires. The winter’s below-average snowfall, a nearly rain-free March, warm weather and steady winds have created ideal conditions for brush fires in some parts of the region.

The region was expected to get up to a quarter-inch of rain – enough to temporarily dampen the dried brush, leaves and twigs but not enough to make a long-term difference, Fire Capt. Edward Consentino in Alton, N.H., said Saturday.

“It probably won’t be effective at all. It’s going to go back to the way it was,” Consentino, who battled a 2-acre brush fire the day before.

More rain is expected Monday and Tuesday, with the prospect of a much-needed soaking, said Art Lester from the National Weather Service office in Gray, Maine.

Vermont was not as dry as its neighbors. Although precipitation was down 0.7 inches from the normal of 2.32 inches, the National Weather Service’s Maureen Breitbach said most parts of the state were not significantly dry.

Saturday’s rain showers were helping, anyway, she said. “The rain today pretty much nixed any kind of fire problems,” she said.

Rain is badly needed elsewhere in northern New England, though.

In Maine, Portland received no rain or snow for the last 16 days of the month, breaking the record for longest dry spell during March. Maine’s all-time record for no precipitation – not even a trace – was 17 days in October 1947.

Portland recorded only an inch of snow during the entire month of March, and Concord, N.H., wasn’t much snowier at 1.3 inches, said Art Lester, meteorologist from the National Weather Service office in Gray, Maine.

Across Maine, firefighters and forest rangers responded to more than a dozen brush fires over the past week. New Hampshire firefighters have covered at least 11 brush fires in the past few days.

In New Hampshire, seven of the state’s 15 forest fire towers were staffed and air fire patrol pilots took to the sky for the firs time this weekend. Most communities have stopped issuing burn permits, which includes campfires.

Grass, small twigs, pine needles and leaves can be ignited by poorly tended backyard debris fires or people who carelessly discard ashes from their wood stoves.

Kent Nelson, fire prevention specialist with the Maine Forest Service, warned those fires can quickly get out of control, especially during gusty conditions that can cause fire to hop from one location to the next.

“With a 15-mph wind, you could have rates of spread faster than many people could run,” Nelson said.

AP-ES-04-01-06 1246EST

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