2015 wildfires burned a record-breaking 10.1 million acres

Fires in Alaska help to smash 2006 record.

 

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.

The Aggie Creek Fire burns 30 miles northwest of Fairbanks, Alaska.
USFS

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION AND STEWARDSHIP (CES) COMMUNICATIONS DESIGNER
    Seeking an individual to design and develop marketing and support materials for a 1-year, 30-hour per week, grant-funded climate education program. Based in Durango, CO....
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL OFFICE MANAGER - BOOKKEEPER
    The Wyoming Outdoor Council is seeking an office manager-bookkeeper to join our team. The office manager-bookkeeper supports the program and administrative functions of the Wyoming...
  • HEALTHY RIVERS SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY
    WRA seeks a passionate attorney to join our Healthy Rivers team. The Senior Staff Attorney will research and advocate for wiser water management and updated...
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and will be accepted until: February 03, 2020. Overview Conservation Voters for Idaho (CVI) protects Idaho's environment...
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...