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Alaska wildfires have burned over two million acres — and fire season still has a long way to go

A “Bambi Bucket” hanging from a helicopter releases hundreds of gallons of water onto the Stetson Creek Fire near Cooper Landing, Alaska, on June 17. (Sgt. Balinda O’Neal/U.S. Army National Guard via AP)

This story has been updated.

In 2004, Alaska suffered its worst wildfire season on record. Heat, dry conditions and lightning strikes combined to produce 701 fires and a staggering 6,590,140 acres burned — “more than 8 times the 10 year acreage average,” according to the state’s Division of Air Quality.

It’s still early, but this wildfire season — which leapt into high gear after lightning strikes ignited more than 150 fires in Alaska over the weekend of June 21-22 — is starting to prompt sober comparisons with 2004.

Newly released data from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center show that wildfires in the state had consumed 2,253,575.8 acres as of Thursday. Meanwhile, the Alaska Division of Forestry states that “the amount of acreage burned in Alaska during June of 2015 shattered the previous acreage record set in June of 2004 by more than 700,000 acres.”

June of 2004 saw 216 fires in June 2004, scorching of 1,153,258 acres; this June saw 404 fires and 1,875,984 acres consumed, the division reports.

The agency also tweeted the following chart:

Clearly, if the season continues at this rate it will be the worst wildfire season ever — but the 2004 season picked up greatly in July. So this month will be crucial.

I also heard from a former U.S. Forest Service smokejumper, Nicky Sundt, who fought fires in Alaska and now works for the World Wildlife Fund. Sundt was definitely worried about 2015 surpassing 2004 — and noted that a lack of fire-fighting resources could play a key role in helping that happen. “The extraordinary magnitude of what already has unfolded in Alaska is by itself alarming,” he said by email. “Far more worrisome is the fact that less than 15% of the fires are staffed.  The other fires will keep burning up millions of additional acres between now and the end of the fire season, which could extend well into August.”

In a previous post, I noted that Alaska wildfire seasons are getting worse and explained why this is so troubling. As much as 85 percent to 90 percent of the state is underlain by permafrost, frozen soil that is rich in organic material in the form of deceased but not yet fully decomposed plant life.

A major climate fear is that thawing permafrost will unleash massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air as this plant life decomposes. Intense wildfires can burn not only trees but upper soil layers, which can hasten the thawing of permafrost (and also expose the ground more directly to the sun’s heat, which can also contribute to thawing).

Moreover, this is just one part of a broader picture — one depicting a stark transformation of the nation’s most northerly and only Arctic state. Alaska’s mountain and tidewater glaciers are now losing in incomprehensible 75 billion metric tons of ice every year, even as it is nearly 3 degrees F warmer (on average) in the state than it was 60 years ago.

It is far too early to say whether this will be Alaska’s worst wildfire season on record, but the current signs are very worrisome. And with wildfires also raging in the lower 48, resources may be stretched too thin to combat fires in Alaska and elsewhere.

And, again, it’s only July 2.

Firefighters are working to contain several massive wildfires raging from Alaska to drought-hit California that have forced hundreds of people to evacuate. (Video: Reuters)