Alaska is battling a huge wildfire this Memorial Day. In the last 24 hours the fire has spread to become bigger than Chicago, prompting officials to issue an order for about 900 people as it threatens Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a region south of Anchorage. With just 30 percent of the fire’s 243 square miles contained, 1,000 structures have been evacuated.
Large wildfires are familiar to the region, where 1 million acres burn annually, and yet it is unusually early in wildfire season to see a fire of this size, a spokesperson said. Citing “unusually dry conditions” as the cause, the Anchorage Daily News points out the state has had “unseasonably warm spring temperatures.”
But the real culprit for worsening fires is climate change, which boosts optimal conditions like heat, drought, and dry weather. This winter, parts of the country were hit by frigid temperatures while Alaska saw temperatures in the high 40s and 50s and had its all-time warmest January. In other words, Alaska saw spring-like temperatures as early as January and February this year. Some scientists say climate change fuels this extreme jet stream.
The National Climate Assessment only confirmed the link between climate change and the dry conditions that enable wildfires in the region:
Even if climate warming were curtailed by reducing heat-trapping gas (also known as greenhouse gas) emissions (as in the B1 scenario), the annual area burned in Alaska is projected to double by mid-century and to triple by the end of the century, thus fostering increased emissions of heat-trapping gases, higher temperatures, and increased fires. In addition, thick smoke produced in years of extensive wildfire represents a human health risk (Ch. 9: Human Health). More extensive and severe wildfires could shift the forests of Interior Alaska during this century from dominance by spruce to broadleaf trees for the first time in the past 4,000 to 6,000 years.
Arizona is burning this week, too, and 3,200 have had to evacuate their homes.