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This Is the Worst Alaskan Wildfire Season on Record

Canada isn't looking too good either.
July 4, 2015, 12:00pm
Image: USDA

Six hundred fires, 1.8 million acres burned, 350 structures damaged or destroyed. This summer has already turned out to be the worst fire season in Alaska's history: evacuations, highway closures, air and rail disruptions. Impressive work for what is by far the most sparsely populated state in the nation.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC) offers this map of current fire activity in the state:

The situation is, well, apocalyptic. The limiting factor would seem to be only the Arctic Circle, which generally demarcates the northernmost tree line and the beginning of fuel-poor tundra. The current tally of 1.8 million acres puts the state on track to beat out the 2004 season, in which 6.59 million acres burned in total (the wildfire season proper ends in September). 2014, which was forecasted to be a rough year for wildfire activity due to low winter snowpack, wound up being pretty tame, with around a quarter million acres burned in total.

Image: NASA/Goddard

Dry conditions are one thing, but what's really putting 2015 over the top is lightning. As an AICC spokesperson told ABC News, recent weeks have seen the state bombarded with an average of 6,000 to 10,000 strikes per day. One three day period in June saw a total of some 31,000 strikes. In terms of total acres burned, lightning is the leading wildfire cause (while human carelessness is the leading cause in terms of total numbers of fires).

Image: NASA/Goddard

NASA, which is tasked with satellite-based wildfire surveillance, described on Thursday a similarly dire wildfire situation throughout northern Canada. The Northwest Territories report around 150 total wildfires with some 150,000 total hectares burned. Alberta: 115 fires, 1,900 hectares. British Columbia: 737 fires, 82,676 hectares.

As you can see from the satellite image above, Canadian smoke has drifted as far as the American Midwest.

Note that the wildfire situation in the Northwest is generally supposed to worsen through the 2015 season, as a result of both an incredibly dry, almost non-existent winter and the threat of a strengthening El Nino, a weather pattern associated with warmer, drier winters in the PNW. Which would be bad for Alaska and well beyond.