An area the size of Connecticut has burned in Alaska this year, the state said. That’s 3.1 million acres, a loss that comes during one of the hottest periods in decades.
The state set a new record for the earliest day with a temperature above 90, when the mercury hit 91 in the town of Eagle on May 23 — 30 degrees hotter than the average high temperature in May, according to the National Weather Service.
Apart from charred landscape, smoky air is affecting even Alaskans who don’t live close to where a fire is raging, said Rick Thoman, a climate scientist for the National Weather Service in Alaska. A Fairbanks resident, Thoman said the air quality has been so bad that advisories to avoid the outdoors have been issued.
“It’s quite nasty,” he said. “This is not chamber of commerce weather.”
“Given the number of acres that have burned, we will be fighting poor air quality until the snow comes in November,” he said.
Though fires tend to burn more frequently in Alaska because there are relatively few people to fight blazes across so much land, there’s a notable increase in the number of fires each year in the past two decades, he said.
“There’s a very strong correlation between … early summer temperatures in May and June and total acreage burned,” he said.
The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center said Wednesday that acreage losses exceed even the worst in more than 10 years.
The summer of 2004 “carries the dubious distinction of being the largest fire season in Alaska history, with 6.7 million acres burned,” the center said. But 2015 could trump that record if the pace of fires keeps up.
There were 152 new fires in a single weekend in late June, according to Alaska Wildland Fire Information, a website operated on behalf of several state agencies including the Alaska Division of Forestry and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Though lightning caused some of the blazes, many were started by people, the site reported. On a Saturday, for example, humans caused 17 of 67 new fires reported to the coordination center.