This story has been updated.
Last month, wildfire watchers were astounded as terrifying wildfires raged across the state of Alaska. Sometimes the records would come in with 300,000 or more new acres burned in a single day. It seemed inevitable that the 2015 wildfire season would quickly catch up with and then surpass the all-time record year, 2004, when 6,590,140 acres burned.
But then the weather shifted. Rains moved in, and satellite analysts downsized their size estimates of some fires. Instead of racing forward, the fire acreage numbers slowed or even stopped their increase. Only recently have they started to tick back up again.
Nonetheless, according to the latest report Tuesday from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, Alaska fires have now consumed 5,098,829.9 acres in 2015. That’s about five-sixths of the total acreage consumed by wildfires anywhere in America this year —currently, 6,224,545 acres. It’s also enough to put the 2015 Alaska wildfire season ahead of what was previously the second-place year — 1957, with 5,049,661 acres burned, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry.
So will 2015 overtake 2004 and set a new record for the most acres burned?
A seasonal wildfire outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center shows a big red splotch across Alaska for the month of August — a forecast of areas where conditions would be favorable for increased wildfire activity. “The volume of active fires on the landscape should continue to produce acreage gains through August,” the agency notes. As of Tuesday, 238 fires were still burning across the state.
In particular, the remote northern Alaskan interior remains fire prone. “The mid-duff layers remain very dry across most of the Interior, Copper River Basin, and inland areas of South Central. This indicates that fuels are capable of supporting large fires, and that they will continue to smolder beneath the surface even during rain events,” says the National Interagency Fire Center. (Click here if you want to know what the “duff” layer is.)
So, will 2015 be merely a staggering wildfire year for Alaska, or an utter record breaker? That remains to be seen.
But don’t forget why this matters. Wildfires burn up Alaskan spruce forests, the spongy organic “duff” layer at their base, and sometimes expose the carbon-rich permafrost beneath that layer to potential thaw. All three factors release carbon into the air in the short term and could, conceivably, work together to make climate change itself worse.
Moreover, don’t forget that at least one other part of the global north where wildfires sometimes burn atop permafrost — namely, Canada — is also having a busy 2015 wildfire year. Canada has seen nearly 10 million acres burned, double the area in Alaska.
In sum, 2015 record or no, this remains a year that forces us to think hard about how wildfires could be transforming the forest of the north — with global consequences.