Predictions of another smoky summer this year didn’t materialize in Washington state, but fires near the Arctic burned through much of the summer.
The Pacific Northwest, as well as British Columbia had a relatively mild and wet summer, and an early start to fire season was headed off by the weather. In Washington, roughly 129,000 acres burned during 1,131 fires, significantly fewer than the 1,850 in 2018. Around one-third of the state’s fires were west of the Cascades, and fires popped up as early as March.
The relatively small number of acres burned was due to the weather as well as firefighters using helicopters and planes immediately on fires, said state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Hilary Franz.
“We successfully used the strategy of initial attack,” Franz said.
While this year was milder than recent seasons, fires have been becoming more frequent and destructive, a trend which is expected to continue.
“People should not take this year for granted,” she said. “There has been a significant increase in the number of fires so people need to be very much front and center that this is still an issue, that just because we had an easier year, the problem does not go away.”
In 2018, much August sunshine and clean air was lost in King County to choking smoke from fires in Eastern Washington, British Columbia and Oregon. The 2019 fire season was predicted to be another long one for Washington, and early fires in Western Washington this year worried fire authorities. In March alone, 51 wildfires scorched 272 acres and nearly all of them were west of the Cascades.
But while Washingtonians had a mostly smoke-free summer this year, Alaska, northern Canada and Siberia all saw significant wildfires. In Alaska, 2.6 million acres burned, some 1 million acres more than Washington and Oregon combined in 2015. Of this, around 588,000 acres were in southwest Alaska instead of the interior, where fires have historically occurred.
In Canada, more than 4.5 million acres were torched by wildfires. While this is only 66 percent of the 10-year average for the country, the northern-western province of the Yukon reported a larger number of fires and it. Similarly, Ontario and Alberta reported more acres burned than the average.
Radio Free Europe reported that in June and July, fires consuming 13 million acres of forestland release roughly 130 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of the exhaust from 36 million cars.
Smoke from these fires drifted through King County in early August, leading to some hazy days. Aside from that residents could have easily missed it. But while these fires are far from Washington, their impacts will be felt globally.
Alison York is a coordinator with the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center. She said the general trend for fires to the north has been one of increase.
“There’s no doubt that the acceleration of fire activity that we’re seeing in northern latitudes — Canada, Siberia, the big seasons they had last year in Scandinavia — all of those are consistent with the projections that climate change ecologists have put together,” York said.
Alaska’s fires this year fell in the 75th percentile. They were above average, but well short of the record 6 million acres which burned in 2004. York said that any season over 1 million acres is considered large, and the number of these large fires has doubled since the 1990s.
But fires near the Arctic present a problem not found in more temperate regions. Plant and animal matter collects on the forest floor over the course of years, and due to the cold temperatures it doesn’t decay. Normally this biological blanket stays there, providing cover for the permafrost beneath until large fires sweep through every 70 to 200 years.
As fires get more larger, hotter and more frequent, this carbon-rich top layer is prone to burning deeper and in some cases exposing the soils beneath to microbes, which go to work digesting organic material and releasing methane. York said the top layers can dry up quickly, priming it for fire.
“Those burn too, and they’re an important element in fire danger. They dry out very rapidly on warm, dry days and when we have really severe fire conditions, those soils tend to burn quite deep,” she said. “So you’re releasing a lot of that carbon through combustion and it’s just like burning fossil fuels.”
Several scientific organizations are now studying the effects of this top layer of carbon-rich fuels burning off. According to Arctic Today, NASA conducted a study of 2014 fires in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It found that 90 percent of the carbon burned in those fires came from organic materiel in the soils, not the trees. The carbon released in fires from that territory offset half of the carbon that ecosystems in Canada could absorb in a year.
This means that boreal forests, which have been a “sink” for carbon — storing more than they release — may become carbon emitters if increasing fire trends continue.
Christina Schädel is a coordinator with the Permafrost Carbon Network, which studies permafrost in the northern latitudes. She said though the fires are happening far from Arizona, where she works, or Seattle, the CO2 being released in fires near the Arctic will continue to add to climate change. And permafrost being exposed to warm temperatures once its protective layer is burned off again makes it vulnerable to microbes which release methane.
There are other considerations for more frequent fires to the north, too.
This year Washington state’s DNR was able to send 360 firefighters to other states to fight wildfires, with 194 of them heading to Alaska. Alaska’s fire season historically started and ended sooner than in the Lower 48, with August marking a slowdown of fires in the state’s interior, York said. But as fire seasons in the Pacific Northwest and California begin earlier and last longer, sometimes kicking off in March and stretching through October, competition for limited resources may increase.
“We’re seeing the possibility of competition for resources where there’s demand for resources both in Alaska and the Lower 48 simultaneously,” York said. “… as Alaskans we know that if there’s competition for resources on an incident in the Lower 48 and in Alaska, we know we’re going to lose.”
Federal firefighting resources have been declining for years with both the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior facing a wave of retirements. Fire-related employees from both agencies peaked in 2005 at more than 18,000, a number which had dropped to 15,600 by 2013. Nationwide, there are only 17 incident commanders available to handle natural disasters ranging from hurricanes to wildfires.
Franz has similar concerns for Washington state, which found itself in stiff competition for firefighters and aircraft late last fire season. There were so few people available to fight wildfires that 140 firefighters came from Australia and New Zealand to battle blazes on the West Coast.
“The reality is that if you look back year after year our fire seasons are growing larger and our needs are growing larger and so are our neighboring states,” Franz said.
The Washington state Legislature approved $50 million to be put toward fighting wildfires and managing forest health. Two new aircraft were acquired and will be ready for service next year as will 30 new firefighters which will help maintain forests during the off-season.
“We have to be more dependent on ourselves,” she said.