FAIRBANKS -- It didn't take long this year before Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch was reminded of the record wildfire season of 2004.
The snow cover melted earlier than usual this year, and with little rain or cloud cover, the sun relentlessly scorched Alaska's forests, creating especially dry conditions. Desiccated black spruce trees across the millions of acres of land that Maisch supervises were ripe for conflagration.
"We knew were in very high fire risk because all of May and early June we kind of cooked the fuels and had very low rainfall," Maisch said. "So we knew things were really prepared to burn -- and we have indices to tell us that."
Then in late June, right after the summer solstice, a major lighting storm struck Interior Alaska. The fire service's sensors detected ten to fifteen thousand lightning strikes a day for three days, sparking more than 300 wildfires.
Many tore through remote reaches of the state, and would contribute to a season that -- while not yet over -- already has a place in Alaska record books as the second-worst.
Warmer and drier weather patterns in northern latitudes are driving the trend toward more severe fire seasons. In turn, wildfires, along with other factors such as insect infestations, are transforming the world's boreal forest ecosystem -- the vast northern forests that stretch from Interior Alaska through Canada, Northern Europe and Russia.