By Trevor Hughes
14 August 2015

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (USA TODAY) – One of the state’s worst wildfire seasons in history has scorched 5 million acres of tundra and forests across Alaska, and experts here fear climate change will cause even more devastating fires through a combination of lower snowpack, drying tundra and melting permafrost.

Like an insulating blanket, snow reduces fire risk by keeping trees and grasses cold and damp. If less snow accumulates, or worse, snow covers less of the state than normal, there will be nothing to stop the near-constant summer sun from drying out the tundra and the permafrost layer below it. Permafrost, which is mostly composed of organic material, burns easily once thawed and lightning strikes.

Anchorage, for example, had its least snowy winter on record, with just over two feet of snow, the National Weather Service reported.

“We’re looking at, potentially over time, more fires burning more area,” said Kent Slaughter, the manager of the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service.

From the U.S. Army’s Fort Wainwright, Slaughter commands an army of firefighters, smokejumpers, logistics experts, pilots and supply clerks to coordinate battles most residents of the Lower 48 don't know are even happening. At the height of the fire season in early July, Slaughter and his teams were battling two wildfires that were each nearly three times bigger than any blaze in the rest of the country.

“We weren’t able to respond to every fire in the way we normally would,” he said.

The number and size of the fires in the drought-parched West are pushing lawmakers to ask Congress to change the way it funds firefighting. This week, senators from Oregon and Idaho said they would propose bipartisan legislation that would allow firefighting agencies to use federal disaster funds to fight fires.

Burned trees and tundra stand out against the wide-open sky of Alaska on 3 August 2015, following the passage of the Aggie Creek Fire outside Fairbanks. Photo: Trevor Hughes / USA TODAY

Such efforts have stalled in the past. But the severity of the fire season in Western states is setting off alarms.

For the first time in two years, the level of firefighting readiness was raised to a 5 on Thursday – the highest level possible. It’s only the fifth time in 10 years the level has been raised to the top, and puts additional firefighters and equipment on standby to help fight fire.

In some years, Alaska only sees about 1 million acres burn. Of the 6 million acres wildfires burned in the U.S. so far in 2015, 5.1 million acres have burned in Alaska, mostly in remote areas where they pose little immediate risk to homes, roads or oil infrastructure. […]

One of the jumpers who deployed on Aug. 4,  Fort Collins, Colo., native Kael Donley, said his second year as a jumper has been challenging. This was Donley's fifth drop of the year, although one of his previous drops lasted 14 days as he parachuted in and then managed a large crew of ground-based firefighters who arrived later.

"It's been really busy, compared to last year," he said. "It's been pretty hot and dry. Usually our season is kind of on the way out a couple of weeks ago, so to still be getting fires, to have these large fires burning, has been unique." […]

“We really need to start considering the long-term implications of big fires that are being predicted," said Nicky Sundt, a former smokejumper turned climate change expert for the World Wildlife Fund. “In the Arctic, you have a lot of carbon locked up, and the fires will release that. We need to start thinking seriously about the carbon emissions from these fires.” [more]

Alaska's permafrost threatened by intense fires, climate change

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