"Fire On The Mountain!"

Dave Anderson | June 21, 2008
Smoke from a wildfire billowing from a cliff.

The Dilly Cliffs Fire in 2015. (Photo: Kate Weatherell)

Note: This story was updated with illustration in 2022, a photo of the Dilly Cliffs Fire that took place in 2015. Read Dave Anderson's story about the 2015 fire, called "Wake of the Fire," here.

The first reports of smoke on Rattlesnake came at 3 p.m. on May 28, 2008. The forest was ablaze directly above the sheer cliffs and ledges of a popular rock-climbing area along Buffalo Road. At 4 p.m. when the first two-man ground crew arrived at the flames, they reported a fire roughly doubling in size every five minutes. Rumney Fire Department went to four alarms and Lakes Region Mutual Aid fire crews totaling 91 people from 17 communities responded to establish a 2,500 foot hose line and pump water up 600 vertical feet to the edge of the fire. When local crews pulled-back at nightfall, the fire was 90% contained to a ten acre plateau above the cliffs.

By the following afternoon, Thursday May 29, fire was tumbling down from the cliffs and making multiple runs at the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain following steep, dry wooded gullies. By then, the US Forest Service coordinated the fire-fighting efforts of regional resources including a crew from Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont and a "Hot Shot" crew from Illinois. On Friday and Saturday, Black Hawk helicopters from the NH Air National Guard delivered 600 gallon water-drops dipped from Stinson Lake and delivering sling-loads of equipment to ground crews working on the mountain. A private contractor, JBI, had smaller helicopters dipping water right from the Baker River adjacent to the fire. A major break came on Friday when rain arrived and continued on Saturday. "The rain changed everything" says Rumney Fire Chief, Kenneth Ward.

By the time crews finished mopping-up hot spots on Tuesday June 3, the week-long Rattlesnake fire had charred 54 acres of steep, rugged terrain. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. According to Bryan Nowell, fire specialist with the Division of Forests and Lands, the human effort was exemplary. "Local firefighters did a fantastic job on the initial suppression effort while hampered by difficult terrain and limited water supplies. The best part was: zero injuries." Ken Ward is also proud of his department and grateful to the Lakes Region Mutual Aid system.

Apocalypse Passed

Two weeks later, the charred forest on Rattlesnake Mountain is surreal and quiet.

Packed soil marks the cliff-top trail which winds like a light yellow-brick road through the blackened landscape. Where the fire moved rapidly, green leaves in the canopy are a stark contrast to scorched trunks of pine and oak. The pervading smell makes exploration akin to being an ant on a mountain of charcoal inside a barbecue grill. Here is a hollow standing dead pine snag that burned like a wooden chimney, launching fire upward into the canopy. Over there, the forest is scorched only to its waist, a high tide line of heat, smoke and flame beneath a still-green canopy.

The aftermath of the fire reveals obvious winners and losers; a study in fire ecology.

Where the fire "crowned-out" burning into the canopy, trees flared like flaming torches and died. Elsewhere, fire scampered quickly and erratically over the forest floor. Half-burned trunks clearly show how down-slope trunk faces deflected approaching fire around their sides and uphill into deeper fuel pockets. Uphill trunk faces burned hottest, charred deeper and burned higher.

Most of the larger diameter red oaks and pines will survive but their lower trunks will wear the uphill basal fire scars forever. The most fire-tolerant tree species, armored with thick plates of corky, outer bark, survive a fire. Large white pine, red pine, white oak and red oak are fire winners.

In the dense understory, hardwoods and sapling pines and witch hazel shrubs are cooked. The leaves on lower limbs are brittle, heat-curled to dry autumn-brown even as upper leaves remain green. Rusty brown pine needles will fall from the limbs of scorched sapling pines. The blackened bark of smaller white birches, yellow birches, red maples and beeches dooms them to die. They're fire losers.

Fire History

In any given year, an average of nearly 900 small fires burn a maximum of a few hundred acres. "The average size of a forest fire in New Hampshire is less than half an acre" says Bryan Nowell. "This year, the Rattlesnake Mountain fire and a fire on 39 acres of Mt. Major already burned 93 acres." By historical standards, that's nothing.

In the1940's, huge landscape-scale forest fires in New England fed on debris left by the September 1938 hurricane. In 1941, the infamous Marlow-Stoddard fire burned 27,000 acres during the last three days of April before a freak May 1 snowfall extinguished the blaze. The fire started at a Marlow sawmill engaged in sawing some of the 500 million board feet of lumber salvaged statewide from the four billion board feet of pine timber blown-down during the '38 hurricane. The Marlow-Stoddard fire was the largest fire to feed on the fuel of hurricane debris.

The worst forest fire season ever recorded in New Hampshire and Maine came six years later in October 1947. In Maine, fires burned from Fryeburg to the coast, leveling Bar Harbor. A prolonged autumn drought fueled fires that blackened a total of 20,000 acres across New Hampshire in one month.

On October 19, 1947, an afternoon lightning strike near Lake Solitude on Mount Sunapee ignited a smoldering blaze that was not reported until two days later by the midnight bus driver heading from Concord to Claremont. For a week, dry winds fanned flames that scorched eight miles of the Sunapee ridge and burned to within two miles of the village of Goshen where 500 firefighters battled the wind-whipped inferno. The first rain of the month fell on October 28th and on the 30th, B-17 bombers were used for experimental cloud-seeding using dry ice to wring rain to extinguish the blaze by Halloween.

Fire forests

Naturally occurring fires are rare in typically damp New Hampshire forests compared to dry Rocky Mountain States where lightning strikes result in huge forest fires. Each summer, major blazes char Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, California, Oregon and Washington. In 2006, fires burned more than 2.4 million acres – an area nearly half the size of New Hampshire! Western forests of Douglas fir, Lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine are fire-dependent. For thousands of years, western forests relied on natural fire cycles to regenerate. In contrast, most Granite State forests are merely fire-resistant. With an average annual precipitation of 42 inches, New Hampshire is carpeted by a lush, broad-leaved hardwood forest of birch, beech and maple over thin, stony soils. By nature, our damp forests resist the large-scale western fires we see in the news each summer.

While we don't have the weather or timber types to fuel large-scale fires, we do have pockets of fire-tolerant forest. Fire-adapted pine barrens are found on dry sand and gravel deposits formed during the melting glacier 11,000 years ago. Examples are found near Ossipee Lake, White Lake, Pine River State Forest, Heath Pond Bog, on the Heights in Concord and Pennichuck Pond in Nashua. These dry pine barrens with an understory of scrub oak and huckleberry are adapted to fast-moving ground fires. For eons, lightning strikes and intentionally-set fires maintained red pine, pitch pine, scrub oak communities by burning away competition, excluding broad-leaf trees without thick bark adaptations to withstand periodic fire. Among deciduous trees, red oak, white oak, sassafras and shagbark hickory are also able to tolerate fast-moving ground fires.

In the White Mountain region, thin soils and exposed granite ledges are home to a rarer fire-dependent forest. Granite "bald tops" are dominated by white pine, red pine, pitch pine shading woody shrubs of the heath family – low bush blueberry, black huckleberry, sheep laurel, Labrador tea and Rhodora. Two popular hiking destinations, Mt. Welch and Mt. Chocorua, also host rare stands of northern jack pines with fire-adapted cones that do not open to release seeds until heated to more than 120 degrees.

The presence of these fire-adapted forests verifies that periodic fires have long been part of New Hampshire forest history. Flat, glacial sand and gravel deposits in major river valleys are important sites for growing pine, they also now experience intense development pressure due to favorable drainage characteristics. In contrast, thin soils of lightning-blasted granite hilltops have historically limited both forestry and agriculture.

Few residents living in new homes in this heavily forest state know the history of forest fires that have periodically burned across the region. Active forest fire monitoring and fire suppression efforts prevent small fires from becoming larger. The damp nature of our maturing forests also prevents wild fires from becoming a more frequent occurrence. As forest ecologist Bill Leak offers: "We live in what is generally an asbestos forest."

The Rattlesnake fire proves there continue to be exceptions to the rule.