State officials say a forest fire in Windham is getting under control, but it could continue to smolder over the coming weeks if statewide drought conditions worsen.
As of Thursday afternoon, the forest fire had burned about 70 acres in Natchaug State Forest, near Route 203 and the Airline Trail.
Officials with the North Windham Fire Department described the blaze on social media as “deep in the wooded and swampy area” of the forest.
Will Healey, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said campfires likely started the blaze, but the cause remains under investigation.
“It’s our understanding that there’s been an encampment of homeless folks that live out there,” Healey said. “Given that there was a cold snap the last couple of nights, we believe that it may have been a fire that they had lit to keep warm, and it just got out of control.”
No injuries have been reported. Healey said there’s no immediate threat to the public or nearby buildings, but North Windham Elementary School did close Thursday due to smoke concerns.
“Unfortunately, we have to close North Windham today due to the forest fire that’s occurring not far from the building,” the school administration wrote in a statement posted to its website. “The air quality inside the building is not conducive to learning.”
Healey said firefighters are now burning a perimeter ring around the area, which is adding to the smoke but should help contain the fire to about a 100-acre burn area.
“It was a very smoky fire yesterday,” Healey said. “Currently, we don’t have air quality concerns at this time.”
The fire comes as federal officials Thursday morning upgraded a small portion of Connecticut to “extreme drought” conditions following weeks with little to no precipitation.
That dry weather means forest floors can be littered with dry combustible material, allowing fires to smolder for weeks as they burn through layers of leaves and twigs.
During a 2016 drought, a fire in Cornwall did just that, smoldering for weeks and torching around 400 acres.
“If the drought continues through the fall, this might be something that isn’t fully extinguished for quite some time,” Healey said. “A fire can be contained, even though it’s not fully extinguished. It’ll be contained and not a threat to the public.”