New-England of the West shall be burnt over … as in some parts of New-England it was done 80 years ago.
— Lyman Beecher, 1828
The burned-over district of New York, like areas of New England many decades earlier, was burned over in fact as well as in spirit.
— Stephen Pyne, “Fire in America” (1982)
To the religious of New England, the forest fires of May 19, 1780, seemed like the second coming was nigh. Forest fires raged in the nearby woods, and it was so dark at noon that day that people lit candles. The Connecticut legislature proposed to adjourn, but Colonel Abraham Davenport demurred: “The Day of Judgment is either approach, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment; it if it, I choose to be found doing my job. I wish therefore that candles be brought.”
I got to thinking about the preceding when I read the following story in the Boston Globe today:
In the second Boston-area brush fire in two days, a blaze among tall reeds along the Mystic River in Medford sent plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky today.
With temperatures Wednesday expected to climb toward record highs, it may not be the last such fire either, a National Weather Service meteorologist said this afternoon.
Medford Deputy Fire Chief Martin Conniff said the blaze was discovered in Macdonald Park along the Mystic River. He said the firefighters took about an hour to put it out. He estimated the fire consumed a patch of about several hundred square feet.
"The ground is pretty wet,” he said. "But the reeds themselves are dried out by winter. …The reeds are high, 12 to 15 feet, and they burn like paper.”
Weather service meteorologist Charlie Foley said that, despite the recent record rains, forecasters are concerned about more brush fires breaking out Wednesday.
It is a remarkable spring in the northeast, after a remarkable winter. While parts were cold and wet, other parts were drier and warmer than usual – and both are now seeing record heat and dryness. With forest cover in the region at levels of the 18th century, the pieces are in place for a return to something last seen almost two hundred years ago: forest conflagrations in the U.S. northeast. We already have red flag warnings in place in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and this is early in the fire season.