The wildfire season in 11 Western U.S. states has started out slower than last year, although deadly fires could still develop in the second half of the season, as they did last year. Meanwhile, wildfires in the Arctic have reached new levels, especially in Alaska and Siberia.
Wildfires in the West killed 160 people and caused $40 billion in damage in the past two years, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The trend is toward larger fires burning more acres – especially in years that are warm. This year has presented some relief. Through mid-July, California’s wildfire numbers were down: from 34,957 large fires on 3,554,03 acres in 2018 to 23,378 fires covering 2,371,397 acres in 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
87 wildfire incidents reported so far
In Alaska, a dry spell this year has exacerbated 58 large fires throughout the state, including the Hess Creek Fire The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported 310 significant incidents (consuming at least 10 acres) in 2018, compared to only 87 significant incidents so far this year. The largest has been the Lonoak fire in Monterey. There were 38 wildfires that burned at least 2,000 acres in California in 2018; there have been only four such blazes in California through mid-July 2019. However, five of California’s largest fires last year happened in the second half of the year.
In Alaska, a dry spell this year has exacerbated 58 large fires throughout the state, including the Hess Creek Fire, the largest so far in 2019.
Effects of wildfires on Artic ice
On the international level, the scale of wildfires in Siberia has been unusually high and dangerously close to population centers, and some environmentalists are concerned the soot from the fires can deposit on Arctic ice, speed up its melt rate, disrupt the local ecosystem, and even increase the sea level rise. Some fires are also in remote areas that are difficult to reach.
Fires throughout the Arctic – in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska – are producing plumes of smoke visible from space. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has called the Arctic blazes ‘unprecedented’.
|Fires throughout the Arctic – in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska – are producing plumes of smoke visible from space|
Arctic fires are not only the result of dry vegetation; in some cases, the underlying peat has caught fire. “The amount of [carbon dioxide] emitted from Arctic circle fires in June 2019 is larger than all the combined CO2 released from Arctic circle fires in the same month from 2010 through 2018,” the WMO says.
Forests are more vulnerable during droughts
Throughout the Western U.S., higher temperatures correlate well with larger wildfires: The warmest weather years have equated to the most fires. Forests are more vulnerable during droughts, but even a wet winter may not relieve fire risks, according to Climate Central.
The moisture can spur growth of grasses and shrubs, which dry out on warmer days and provide additional fuel
The moisture can spur growth of grasses and shrubs, which dry out on warmer days and provide additional fuel. Climate Central’s analysis is based on data reported by the U.S. Forest Service covering Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Data shows that many states are struggling to use prescribed burns to reduce fuel for out-of-control blazes, but there is much less federal funding for prescribed burns than for fire suppression, according to Climate Central.
Compressed wildfire season expected
Looking forward, an active but compressed wildfire season is expected across the West as the southwestern monsoon becomes more active in August. While this will effectively end the season across the Southwest, lightning-induced fire activity is expected to increase elsewhere, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
By October and November, California will reenter the fire season amid concerns of higher-than-average fire potential due to the presence of an abundant crop of fine fuels in the lower to middle elevations.