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Easing Alaska's wildfire seasons means tackling climate change

  • Author: Nicky Sundt
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published July 9, 2015

Alaska is burning. As of July 8 more than 300 fires are blazing across the state in an extreme and costly fire season that could last well into August. Firefighters and the resources they depend on are being pressed to the limits.

I know exactly what our front-line defenders are going through. I've been there.

During the summer of 1983, I was among a group of smokejumpers dispatched from western states to Alaska during a major "fire bust," a relatively large number of fires started mostly by thunderstorms with lots of lightning but little rain. Our job as smokejumpers was to be first responders, rapidly deployed via aircraft to contain fires before they grew much larger and costlier. That summer, 450 firefighters were brought in to help control some of the 451 fires that scorched over 98,000 acres of Alaska wilderness.

Alaska's climate hasn't been the same since. Neither have the fire seasons.

Each decade has been warmer than the last, driving changes in wildfires. According to the Alaska Division of Forestry, in the 1990s, the average annual number of large wildfires in Alaska doubled and has remained at that elevated level. More importantly, there has been a dramatic increase in the average area burned. In the 1980s, large fires on average blackened less than a half million acres annually. From 2000-2009, the average annual acreage was about four times that amount. 2004 set a record -- fires burned about 6.6 million acres.

And this year, it looks like that 2004 record may go up in smoke. Fires have already engulfed 3.2 million acres and it's only July. Over 3,200 men and women are battling the state's wildfires -- far exceeding the number involved in 2004.

To the seasoned firefighter, it's clear that wildfires are burning larger areas than they did several decades ago in the western U.S. and Alaska. On average, about 3 million acres burned nationwide annually from 1970 through 1999. From 2000 to 2013, that annual average doubled to more than 6 million acres.

Smoke isn't the only thing rising; so are fire suppression costs. Firefighting budgets at the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior amounted to $3.5 billion in 2015. That's about a 25 percent increase -- per year -- over the last two decades. In 2014, wildland fire management accounted for more than 40 percent of the entire Forest Service budget, up from 16 percent in 1995.

To the seasoned scientist, it's clear that climate change has been -- and will continue to be -- a major driver of these trends. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, "(n)umerous fire models project more wildfire as climate change continues. Models project a doubling of burned area in the southern Rockies, and up to a 74 percent increase in burned area in California, with northern California potentially experiencing a doubling under a high emissions scenario toward the end of the century." And the program's researchers warn that "the annual area burned in Alaska is projected to double by mid-century and to triple by the end of the century …"

"We're being confronted and asked to suppress or battle fires that didn't exist 20 years ago," says Don Whittemore, a 20-year firefighting veteran and wildfire incident commander. "On a day-to-day basis, we're being surprised. And in this business, surprise is what kills people. ... We are seeing a level of fire and an intensity of fire, and a risk to firefighters that has not existed in the past. And every indicator is every year it just gets worse."

The point he makes is an important one. We are leaning more and more on our first responders -- firefighters, police, paramedics and other emergency response providers -- to protect us from the disastrous consequences of climate change. If we truly care about them and about our families and communities, then we need to start aggressively shifting away from fossil energy sources that are fueling climate disruption. And we need to do far more to prepare for the climate change impacts that are already emerging.

In a sense, our growing reliance on first responders is evidence of our collective failure to take climate change seriously even as the flames are literally licking at our doorsteps. Perhaps Whittemore says it best: "We have got to start confronting climate change with the same level of effort and resources and intensity that we do to fight the wildland fires. Firefighters are already taking unacceptable risks."

Nicky Sundt, director of climate science and policy integration at the World Wildlife Fund, worked from 1976 to 1990 fighting fires in the western U.S. and Alaska. He now works at the intersection of climate science and policy at WWF, seeking to slow climate change and to limit its adverse consequences for people and species.

Correction: Upon first publication, the short biography above incorrectly said Nicky Sundt is a director at "the World Wildlife Federation." It has been corrected above.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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