Wildfire Season Prognosis: Hot, Long, and Intense

Wildfire Season Prognosis: Hot, Long, and Intense

As scorching temperatures plague the nation from coast to coast, wildfires rage in even the most unlikely places.
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Reynolds Creek wildfire - St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park. Photo: Erin Conwell/AP and Staunton News Leader

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Friday, August 7, 2015 - 6:00am

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Mention wildfire and the scorched hills of California, parched western plains of Washington, and beetle-infested forests of the Rocky Mountains come to mind. The wilds of Alaska aren’t generally considered to be a high risk location, but as it turns out, 2015 is shaping up to be the state’s worst wildfire season ever.

With over 5 million acres (the size of the state of Connecticut) already charred, experts claim that the changing climate—which has resulted in reduced precipitation, accelerated snow melt, and a 3 degree temperature increase in Alaska (a much greater increase than in the lower 48)—is exacerbating wildfire conditions. Considering that Alaska is home to seventeen percent of U.S. forests, the dramatic increase in wildfire risk is concerning.

While the pace of the burn is slowly moderating, scientists say the fires are just the latest indicator of a climatic transformation that is reshaping and redefining Alaska—its forests, its coasts, its glaciers, and perhaps most of all, the frozen ground beneath—more than any other state in the nation.

Throughout the U.S., the wildfire season prognosis is grim. As drought extends its relentless stranglehold on the West, mega-fires—faster, hotter, and more explosive than ever—continue to annihilate forests that have few natural defenses remaining to fend off fire’s threat.

California is experiencing yet another epic wildfire season—since January 1, about 5,200 fires have burned on state and federal lands, according to the U.S. Forest Service. That's 10 percent more than last year (although the 74,000 acres burned is approximately 6 percent less.) Montana has experienced a 200% increase in area burned by wildfire in recent years, and an 80% increase in air pollution resulting from those fires.

The U.S. Forest Service has confirmed that wildfire seasons are increasing in length and intensity. In fact, a recent study published in Nature Communications indicates that there is “a significant lengthening of fire weather seasons across 25.3 percent of the planet's vegetated lands, leading to the elevation of mean fire season duration by up to 18.7 percent.” Furthermore, “the locations, which have become prone to burning due to the long periods of fire weather, also increased by 108.1 percent.”


CATEGORY: Environment