Dry, Hot Weather Ignites Big Alaska Wildfire Season
ANCHORAGE Successive hot summers, vast swaths of insect-weakened trees and lightning strikes have combined to torch about 4 million acres of forest in Alaska this summer, nearly tying the state's third-largest fire season on record, federal and state officials said Tuesday.
This summer's large wildfires come a year after more than 6.5 million acres burned last year, the most since wildfire records have been kept in the past 56 years.
The two consecutive large fire seasons are unprecedented, according to wildfire managers and forestry experts.
"It does not happen, until recently, that we have two large back-to-back fire seasons," said Maggie Rogers, spokeswoman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, the consortium of federal and state agencies that manage wild fires in Alaska.
Within a week, this year's total is expected to surpass the 1969 total of 4.017 million acres, the third-largest on wildfire season on record, Rogers said.
The large reach of this year's fires may be one sign of a major climate-driven change underway in Alaska's boreal forest, said Glenn Juday, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Alaska has warmed dramatically in past decades, and if the warming trend continues, the trees in Alaska's boreal forest could vanish over the next century, said Juday, who has been studying the effects of global warming in the far north.
"They won't be able to grow at all. There won't be forest anymore," he said. "It looks like we would make a transition from forest to grassland."
One reason for the wildfires, scientists say, is rising insect populations that kill trees, turning them into dry, flammable fuel for raging wildfires.