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Fire is a factor in the health of Indiana forests

 A fire tower at McCormick's Creek State Park.
Zach Herndon
A fire tower at McCormick's Creek State Park.

Wildfire out west has become an annual disaster, destroying forests and homes. More than a million and a half acres have burned this year across 13 western states, the highest year-to-date on record.

How likely is it Indiana could soon face similar risk?

Darren Bridges, state fire coordinator at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said chances of a major fire remain low.

“As far as are (wildfires) more aggressive or bigger, no, I don’t really think so. We’re seeing pretty much numbers that we’ve seen for years,” Bridges said.

For one thing, Indiana forests are considerably different from western woodlands such as Yosemite National Park. High-altitude western forests are historically less prone to fire but burn more fiercely. In contrast, eastern forests have adapted to regular low-intensity wildfires. Aside from the condition of forests, Bridges said natural fire starts are far more common out west.

“Out west they have a lot of lightning strikes and natural fire starts, where in Indiana we have a handful of lightning starts. Most of ours are definitely human-caused,” Bridges said.

Unlike western states, where high winds and drought have combined into an explosive situation, hot and dry summers have had a relatively small impact on Indiana’s fire risk. Since the state’s fire seasons are in the early spring before plants sprout and in late autumn after leaves fall, some of the Indiana Fire Control Headquarters’ staff are currently away in states like Alaska, assisting overwhelmed firefighters.

In fact, Indiana forests may be suffering the consequences of less frequent burns. Woodlands in the state burned regularly before fire prevention became a priority in land management. Purdue University professor of forest ecology Mike Jenkins said that regular forest fires were once key to maintaining Indiana’s oak forests.

“We’ve had decades of fire suppression in many of our forests, and it’s pushed natural succession in a different direction where you’re starting to get more mesic species like maples replacing the oaks,” Jenkins said. “One of the goals of prescribed burnings is to maintain that oak on the landscape.”

In addition to preserving historic tree species, Jenkins said regular controlled burns can decrease the risk of bigger fires.

“By burning under conditions that are well-controlled and safe, they’re able to have these desirable ecological effects,” Jenkins said. “They’re also able to reduce the fuel-load so you reduce the intensity and likelihood of fires.”

Indiana hasn’t seen a major wildfire since the 1964 Georgia fire, which consumed almost 2,500 acres in Lawrence County. Conditions then were similar to what much of the west is currently experiencing, with high winds and prolonged drought.

Jenkins said current projects are unclear if climate change will increase Indiana’s fire risk.

“We might have drier warmer conditions, but we may also be seeing rainfall occurring in larger quantities but smaller intervals,” he said. “That can have an effect on an area’s frequency and intensity of fires.”

Jenkins recommended Hoosiers who live in forested areas keep a tree-free perimeter around their homes and pay attention to burn conditions reported by state and national forests. But for now, Jenkins and Bridges said the risk of major fires in Indiana is no higher than previous years.