Alaska’s Intense Wildfire Seasons Could Be Felt Worldwide (UPDATED)

With 5 million acres burned, 2015 becomes the second-worst year for wildfires in the state’s history.

(Photo: Alaska Department of Natural Resources-Division of Forestry)

Aug 11, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

In the Alaska wildfire season of 2004, 6.6 million acres—10,300 square miles—of boreal forest went up in flames. It remains the state’s worst year for wildfires in 64 years of record keeping.

On Friday, the 2015 season moved into second place when the area of land burned passed 5 million acres, or roughly 8,000 square miles. With temperatures in the state cooling and rainfall increasing, typical weather for this time of year, 2015 isn’t going to break 2004’s all-time record, according to experts. But “it is quite significant,” said Scott Rupp, a University of Fairbanks forestry professor and an expert in fire ecology. “This year is definitely within a handful of fire years in which we’re burning this much acreage, fitting what is setting up to be a consistent trend in the past 25 years.”

Between 1950 and 1989, said Rupp, eight Alaska fire seasons surpassed 1 million acres, with only two reaching or surpassing 3 million acres. By contrast, “from 1990 up through and including this year, we’ve had 11 years where we’ve burned more than a million acres,” he said, “and we’ve surpassed 3 million [acres] four times, and we came within 50,000 acres in 2009 of being able to say we did that five times.”

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The extreme wildfire season is another sign of the region’s fast-changing climate. Temperatures in the state have risen several degrees above historical norms on average, compared with smaller increases in the lower 48 states as climate change accelerates.

Alaska’s abnormally warm and dry winter of 2014–15 was followed by record inland heat in May. By late June, nearly 400 fires had already burned 1.6 million acres, according to state fire officials, almost doubling the number of fires during the same period in the record-setting burn season of 2004.

The altered climate has brought wildfire out of the Alaskan interior and up to people’s doorsteps. “We did have a couple major urban interface fires where we lost many structures—such as barns, sheds, and outhouses—as well as over 50 primary residences, and that’s not usual for us in Alaska,” said Sam Harrel, a spokesperson with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service.

The high levels of smoke affected human health as well. “We’ve had, in Fairbanks this summer, at least a week of hazardous air quality where the community has opened up ‘smoke respite centers’ for people who have compromised immune systems or asthma or other breathing difficulty issues,” Rupp said. “Numerous rural communities actually evacuated elders as well as children, not so much because of imminent danger of the fire itself but because of the smoke inundating them.”

Alaska’s interior forests will recover, said Rupp. “The way the boreal forest works is that as you get into later succession, these forests are spruce-dominated,” he said. “The black spruce stands are highly flammable, adapted to bounce back from burns,” and actually need the intense heat of wildfires to release their seeds.

Wild animals may need to shift their ranges, however. Moose love to graze in stands of young trees, Rupp said, but this year’s fires have been burning up the lichen undergrowth from older stands of trees that caribou depend upon for winter foraging. “Past studies show that for about 50 to 70 years after fire, caribou are likely not going to be utilizing that area much in the wintertime for browsing purposes,” he said.

That has implications for rural communities and native communities, where hunting provides a great deal of the food supply. “Fires that have occurred close to some of those communities are going to significantly alter where wildlife are on the landscape and what access those hunters have to the animals” through forests where trails have been blocked or destroyed, Rupp said.

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A NASA satellite saw multiple wildfires burning in Alaska on Aug. 6, 2015. (Photo: NASA)

The increasingly intense wildfire season in Alaska also has implications for the planetary carbon balance. Without the typical three-feet-deep blanket of lichen insulating the frozen soil, that ground melts and releases methane—a heat-trapping gas more potent than carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere.

“There is research going on that would suggest permafrost is increasing in terms of its rate of thaw,” said Rupp. “But if we look statewide at the modeling work that’s been done that includes both tundra and temperate coastal rainforest regions, it becomes more complex,” because those areas are absorbing carbon.

Regrowing forests also absorb more carbon than they emit, he said.

“I would say right now the jury is still a bit out” about the net impact of more frequent and bigger wildfire seasons on global warming, Rupp said.

UPDATED August 12, 2015 11:02 a.m. PT: No matter how much climate impact the intensifying fire seasons have beyond the region, the trend itself matches up with scientific forecasts of how conditions in Alaska would change as global warming progresses, said Danielle Redmond, an organizer with the Alaska Climate Action Network, in e-mail. "It is troubling to know that that not only are these wildfires symptomatic of climate change, but they are also driving it, as the melting permafrost releases enormous quantities of methane into the air," she said.

"These wildfires, the risks we are taking in the Arctic" by drilling for undersea oil and gas, "our warming oceans, and even our economy"—falling oil and gas prices have carved a $3.5 billion deficit into the state budget—"are all strong indicators that we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground," Redmond said, "and turn our attention toward [Alaska's] wealth of renewable energy resources."