Is recordbreaking season a vision of fires to come?
Part 1: Fire year burns up the record books
By Sonya Senkowsky
UPDATE: As of Sunday (July 18), the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reported more than 3.5 million acres total burned this year, making this the third largest fire season in Alaska history. Thursday, when the total was just 3.1 million acres, researcher Eric Kasischke commented: “If dry weather continues into August, we will easily reach the 5-million acre mark.” Alaska’s biggest fire year on record claimed 5 million acres in 1956.
As statewide wildfire totals mounted to more than 2.8 million acres Wednesday (July 14), researchers say there’s no doubt it’s a record-burning year for fires in Alaska.
The only question now is how many records the fires will incinerate.
As Interior wildfires spread over the weekend, records set in 1997 and 2002 went up in a puff of smoke, making 2004 Alaska’s largest fire year of the decade, according to figures reported by the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. By early this week, it had likewise immolated 1977’s ranking.
Now, fire experts say, the season is just a day or two away from being one of Alaska’s top three wildfire years ever.
“This is a fire year of historical significance,” said Larry Hinzman, a research professor at the Institute of Northern Engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a principal investigator with the 1999 Frostfire project, which employed an experimental burn near Fairbanks to study the relationship between fires and climate.
“This is a biggie,” said Hinzman. “If it’s not the biggest since 1958, it’s darned close.”
An unusually early start to the year’s fire season, combined with continuing dry weather conditions, has given the fires time to grow, said University of Maryland-College Park researcher Eric Kasischke.
The fire ecologist has been studying Alaska wildfires for more than 20 years, and most summers, he treks to the Tok and Fairbanks areas for his research. This season, Kasischke stayed home (a decision made before the fires started); but even from his East coast office, he has been following Alaska fire stats as passionately as a baseball fan following a favorite team.
“What’s unusual this year is that you’re having so many large early season fires,” Kasischke said earlier this week. “There has never been a year in the past 10 when you’ve seen this much burn so early in the fire season.”
With July wildfires already consuming forest at a rate between 60,000 and 180,000 acres per day, Kasischke said, it’s a conservative guess they will continue to grow by at least 100,000 acres per day. That means Alaska could hit the 3-million-acre mark by as early as the end of this week. If the total surpasses the 3.2 million acres burned in 1990, that would make this the third largest fire season on record.
“I think that (guess) is reasonable,” said Pete Buist, fire information officer with the Alaska Interagency Fire Information Center. “Under these conditions, with the rate of spread we have now, a fire can double in a day—and many of them have been.”
Whatever the final tally, researchers say the fires are large enough to have a significant effect on atmosphere and climate. Hinzman, a hydrologist, is interested in the effects of large fires on permafrost. Large fires that expose permafrost to a warming climate could accelerate climate change, he said.
“Our climate is warm enough now that when we have a fire, our permafrost tends to degrade. And in this warmer climate, it may not recover. So it can have a very large-scale landscape effect,” said Hinzman.
“People think that climate change is going to be a very slow process. But actually, in Alaska, where we have permafrost ... when it becomes dry, the whole ecosystem changes. So we can get a rapid response to the whole change in climate.”
Kasischke’s work also addresses climate change. In January, Kasischke and Hinzman were among co-authors on a paper in the journal Science that demonstrated fire’s pronounced impacts on the northern atmosphere.
The frequency, size and severity of large fire years in Alaska has increased since 1980—a trend that research suggests will continue if increased fire frequency outpaces the ability of the forests to re-establish, Kasischke says.
A big fire year—even a standout like this year—does not a theory prove, however, and Kasischke emphasizes that long-term analysis is what’s important. One thing is certain: The fires will keep researchers busy.
Kasischke’s work in Alaska will continue. On Friday, NASA awarded Kasischke a new three-year grant to study the fires in Alaska and the Yukon Territories. And Hinzman said that Frostfire researchers are fast mobilizing for studies on everything from the atmospheric transport of soot to fire’s impacts on landscape.
“Based on this year’s record activity, we will certainly not lack for suitable sites to carry out our studies,” Kasischke said. But he is careful to temper scholarly enthusiasm with concern for families and homes at risk. “This is a serious threat, both to homeowners and firefighters, and I don’t envy them,” he added.
Researchers and other members of the public can view the most recent satellite fire images at the USDA Forest Service Active Fire Maps Web site, where high-resolution images are posted within 24 hours of being recorded—often before the burn areas they show have been added to official estimates.
“It’s definitely interesting and a lot of activity,” said Keith Lannom, operations program leader at the Salt Lake City-based Remote Sensing Applications Center that updates the site.
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