Department of Energy and Environmental Protection seasonal staff member Emily Schafer works to control the brush fire in Windham. Local volunteer firefighters and DEEP crews worked late Wednesday night and started early Thursday to contain the fire. (Courtesy of DEEP)

70-Acre Fire Breaks out in Windham, Drought Deepens Across Connecticut and Rhode Island

Volunteer firefighters and state crews are working to contain a 70-acre brush fire that began Wednesday in the Natchaug State Forest in Windham County as drought conditions persist and begin to stretch into southern Connecticut.

Northern Connecticut, including Windham County, has experienced drought since June. A typically swampy area of the forest is now dry brush, and there has been low humidity in the air and high winds for the past several days – a recipe for fire to spread — explained Will Healy, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The conditions also contributed to smaller fires in Killingly, Brooklyn and Chaplin, which have all been extinguished, Healey said. The smoke from the Windham fire was bad enough to force North Windham Elementary School to keep children at home on Thursday.

Crews including local volunteer firefighters and DEEP staff members were working late into Wednesday night and starting again early Thursday morning to create a perimeter to contain the fire. They were using a bulldozer to clear a path around it, creating a gap between vegetation to keep the fire from spreading, Healey said.

“That clears a path, and then they do a controlled burn to prevent the fire from burning new vegetation around the perimeter,” Healey said.

With little rain in the forecast, the fire in Windham could prove difficult to fully extinguish even after its spread is controlled. During the 2016 drought, a fire in the Cornwall area burned from late summer through the winter, Healey said.

“Even when there was snow on the ground, there were still hot spots that were smoldering,” Healey said. “If we don’t get significant rainfall, it could be another situation where the fire is contained and there’s no threat to the public, but there still could be areas where it’s not fully out.”

The cause of the Windham fire hasn’t been determined, but Healey said it’s important for anyone going camping and thinking of making a fire to be extremely careful and vigilant, and not leave the fire unattended. Make sure the spot is cold and wet to the touch before leaving.

“All of the local firefighters are volunteers, and that’s definitely to be commended,” Healey said. “It goes to show how important it is to have volunteer firefighters.”

Drought deepening, little rain in the forecast

As crews battled the blaze in Windham, the Connecticut Interagency Drought Work Group recommended designating New London County as stage two drought in its bi-weekly meeting held over Microsoft Teams. Work Group Chair Martin Heft said that designation needs approval from Gov. Ned Lamont’s office before it’s official.

If the designation is approved, New London would be the first of the four southern counties to be declared in stage two drought. The four northern counties – Windham, Tolland, Hartford and Litchfield – were declared stage two on Aug. 26.

New London County has received 54 percent of its usual amount of precipitation over the past two months, less than the stage two threshold of 65 percent. Precipitation is one of nine factors considered in determining the stage of drought, and New London County currently meets seven of factors, while partially also meeting the standard for low groundwater levels.

Stage two is an “advisory stage” where water suppliers should prepare for water-savings measures if necessary. Individuals are also advised to limit their water use, particularly outdoor uses like washing cars or watering lawns and gardens, Heft said.

Nicole Belk, senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Massachusetts, told the work group that the two-week forecast for Connecticut is dry. Tropical Storm Sally is bringing rain to the Carolinas, but is expected to slide off shore before reaching Connecticut, she said. 

A front will come through Thursday night and Friday morning that could bring a few showers, but not much. Then conditions are expected to be dry through the middle of next week, unless the forecasted path of Hurricane Teddy brings it toward Connecticut. Now, it’s expected to stay well offshore, she said.

“The only catch is with the active tropics, maybe if we get a pattern shift we could get something up here, but right now it doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen,” she said.

Small portions of New London and Windham counties were marked as being in “extreme drought” on the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday. Those portions are along the border with Rhode Island, which is almost entirely under extreme drought, along with portions of southeastern Massachusetts.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo issued a statewide drought advisory on Thursday, the first of four drought levels in that state. Rhode Island residents were encouraged to check with their water supplier for restrictions and take steps to conserve water, like not watering lawns in the warmest part of the day between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and not over-watering lawns.

“I want to reassure Rhode Islanders that we have systems in place to respond to dry conditions, and we will continue to closely monitor the situation in the days and weeks ahead,” Raimondo said in the press release. “We are encouraging residents and businesses to identify their water supplier and watch for any water restrictions in their area. I also want to remind Rhode Islanders to be considerate of their water usage, because we all play a role in our state’s water conservation efforts.”

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