Climate

The West Is Still On Fire

CREDIT: AP Photo/Noah Berger

A wildfire burns in Napa, California.

Just in time for peak tourist season, Montana’s Glacier National Park is on fire. As of Tuesday, some 3,200 acres of the park were engulfed by wildfire, which began a week ago and caused park officials to shut down three separate campsites throughout the park as well as close off the St. Mary Visitor Center. As of Wednesday, the wildfire was 56 percent contained, and portions of the park that were previously closed have been reopened to the public — but firefighters are still working to contain the remaining portion of the fire. According to NPR, travel companies associated with the park earn 90 percent of their revenue between June 20 and August 20.

The Glacier National Park fire is just another example of the disruption the 2015 wildfire season has already caused for Western states. Plagued by high temperatures, low snowpack, and continued drought, states from Alaska to California are in the midst of one of the earliest and most prolific fire seasons on record. As of Tuesday, 34,995 large fires had burned over 5,569,671 acres in 2015 — almost 2 million acres above the 10-year average.

In Alaska alone, fires of all sizes have burned nearly 5 million acres, paving the way for the state’s worst fire season ever. Alaskan wildfires are particularly concerning because the state sits on vast tracts of permafrost — permanently frozen soil and water that contains more carbon than is currently contained in the atmosphere. Wildfires burn away the top layer of earth, whether that’s trees, brush, leaves, or other material that rests on a forest floor. But in Alaska, increasingly powerful fires not only strip away the top layer of organic material — they also burn organic matter underground, removing the protective layer of trees and pine needles that insulates the permafrost from the sun’s rays. Without that protective layer, heat from the sun has a much easier time turning permafrost from frozen organic matter to soupy organic matter that can release dangerous greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere.

Alaska has undergone rapid climatic changes in the past 50 years, warming by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit. But it has also seen a marked increase in the length and intensity of its fire season — something that climate scientists worry could hasten the melting of Alaska’s permafrost, and, in turn, exacerbate climate change.

Drought conditions in Washington have made the state so hospitable to fire that its Olympic Peninsula — which contains one of the best remaining examples of a temperate rain forest — has been battling a rare wildfire since late May. The Paradise Fire currently burning in Olympic National Park, which is normally one of the wettest places in the United States, isn’t expected to be contained until late-September. According to the Washington Post, the fire is already the largest in the park’s history.

In Northern California, a fire in Nevada County has burned over 2,000 acres, threatening about 1,800 homes. Firefighters told local news Wednesday that they had the fire 40 percent contained, but the fire is just one of six that firefighters in Northern California are currently fighting. California has seen an especially quick start to its fire season, with fire crews telling CBS News that they have responded to about 1,100 more incidents this year than by this same time last year.

Climate change is expected to increase both the length of fire season and the number of large fire events seen each year. But a longer fire season could also make climate change worse, releasing carbon stored in forests into the atmosphere, hastening climate change that in turn makes wildfires worse.