The summer of 2015 was unlike anything most career firefighters had ever seen. Across the United States, fires erupted not only in dry woodlands, but also in grasslands, rainforests, and tundra, ignited by lightning strikes and careless campers. Flames dripped from lichen-covered trees in the Pacific Northwest, and in Alaska, ate into permafrost. Two hundred. U.S. military personnel were called in to battle the ferocious blazes across the West — as were Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders.
By year’s end, wildfires would consume more than 10.1 million acres of land in the U.S., destroying 4,500 homes and taking the lives of 13 wildland firefighters. Fighting the blazes cost an unprecedented $2.6 billion, the majority spent in the West. "While the news that more than 10 million acres burned is terrible, it's not shocking, and it is probable that records will continue to be broken,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press release last week.
The burned acreage surpasses the 2006 record of 9.9 million acres, which itself was the biggest year documented since modern record keeping began in 1960 (during the 1920s through 1940s, burned acreage averaged 30 million to 50 million acres). Though more than 68,000 fires flared this summer, it was ultimately Alaska that put 2015 into the record books. More than 5.1 million acres burned up north, the state’s second largest fire season after 2004.
“This year we had fires occurring from the Canadian border over by Northway, on the Alaskan Highway, all the way out to the Lower Kuskokwim River, almost to Bethel, which drops into the Bering Sea, all at the same time,” says Kent Slaughter, manager of the Alaska Fire Service, noting though this season wasn’t the largest, fires were more widespread.
Because Alaska’s fire season typically has a head start on the Lower 48, the state’s fire managers are able to call on the rest of the nation for crews and tankers. Still, resources are finite, says Ken Frederick, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.
“There’s only 30 to 40 large air tankers in the system, 110 hotshot crews, and around 400 smokejumpers — when everything is busy, very quickly all resources are committed … and not everything can be supplied,” he says.
Due to the state’s remote, rugged terrain, firefighting in Alaska can be especially expensive. “They require a lot of aircraft and they have less infrastructure to get to fires,” Frederick explains.
Such costs quickly add up, and by mid-year, policymakers and government officials were gawking at the price tag. During a one-week period this August, wildfire suppression across the nation cost a record $243 million. That month, Vilsack announced that the Forest Service had exhausted its firefighting forces and had nearly every piece of its suppression equipment in use, and had completely drained its wildfire budget. As it does every year, the agency was then forced to make up the shortfall by transferring funds away from forest restoration, trail work and watershed management.
Congress failed to fix the Forest Service’s funding problem yet again this year, though. Officials were hopeful the proposed Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would make the 2016 federal budget, but it was not included amid opposition from Key Senate leaders, like Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Green groups, too, provided pushback against the Act, noting they wanted a “clean” wildfire budget fix without harmful logging provisions favored by some conservative representatives.
Had it passed, the bipartisan effort would have treated wildfires like other natural disasters, thus ending the transfer of money from other programs to fight blazes. Instead, the Forest Service and Department of Interior would be able to access a federal disaster relief account, once they’d spent more than 70 percent of the 10-year average costs of fire suppression — roughly $1.13 billion.
Rather, the Forest Service will see a short-term fix — a slight top-up of funds. The 2016 federal budget provides $1.6 billion for firefighting, an increase of $600 million from 2015, and $1 billion less than the actual amount spent on firefighting last year.
At the heart of the requests for increased funds is a desperate need for more money for forest and rangeland restoration, including forest thinning and prescribed burns that can reduce the spread and intensity of fires.
Historically, the Lower 48 has required more intensive restoration work after fires to stop erosion and prevent invasive plants from moving in; Slaughter notes “very little” work is done in Alaska. But recently, he’s noticed a troubling change in the state’s fire cycle that could ramp up restoration needs.
Young fire scars, only 10 or 15 years old, were reburning. Typically, recently burned areas provide a barrier to the growth of large fires. Fires may rip through black spruce but stop moving once they hit an area of new growth. Instead, “there were numerous instances where those were being burned through.” Such changes could mean the fuel dynamic — what vegetation is growing back — has been altered, or that fires are more intense, burning out the root systems.
Even the tussock tundra has changed. Instead of grasses and sedges, larger, taller shrubs have taken root in the ecosystem due to climatic warming, serving as fire-friendly fuel.
Though it’s too soon to say what the 2016 fire season will hold, everyone is paying close attention to the effects of El Nino. The weather phenomenon is expected to soak parts of the Southwest this month, and massive storms have already hit California, making a small dent in the drought that has plagued the state for four years. Come summer, that extra moisture could keep fires at bay, at least in those parts of the West. For now though, fire modelers are deferring to meteorologists.
Gloria Dickie is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. Follow her on Twitter.