"There's no doubt about it" -- Researchers suggest increased fire activity, and cost, due to climate change in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Researchers in Alaska say climate change is shifting the way the state manages resources, including around wildfires. They predict a warmer climate will bring bigger and hotter fires and a higher cost of suppressing those fires.

Firefighters on the line at McKinley Fire, Photo credit Meshel, Engine crew, Alaska DOF.

Wildfires have ravaged Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska in the 2019 fire season. As of Aug. 30, total acreage burned in Alaska accounted for 64 percent of all acreage burned in the U.S. The cost of fighting fires in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska is just over $51 million, and growing.

Researchers have made conservative estimates of the costs of wildfire response in Alaska's changing climate, ranging from $1.2 - $2.1 billion by 2100.

Scientists say the economic research correlating climate change to an increased instance of wildfire in high-latitude forests (or boreal forests) is still developing -- but what they've seen paints a costly future for fighting fires in Alaska.

"There's no doubt about it that science is projecting continued significant increases in fire activity," Alison York with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Fire Science Consortium said.

York and her colleagues studied Alaska's 2015 wildfire season, which burned over 5 million acres. Their research yielded a significant probability of repeating that record year.

"We were able to use current attribution science to show that a season like that is 35 to 60% more likely in the climate change world that we are currently experiencing," York said.

Fire officials have extended Alaska's fire season through Sept. 30. As of Aug. 30, just over 2.5 million acres have burned in Alaska -- falling significantly short of the 2015 wildfire season -- but damages have incurred from this year's fires. The McKinley Fire, for instance, burned 51 homes and 87 other structures, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center Incident Management Situation Report for Sept. 1.

So exactly what are the driving forces behind increased wildfire activity in Alaska?

Climate change is accelerated in Arctic regions for a multitude of reasons. Scientists say a significant contributing factor is the rapid melting of sea ice, driving warming weather patterns and oceanic temperatures. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the main source of ocean heat is sunlight. Sea ice reflects solar heat, but when it melts much of that heat is absorbed into the ocean and eventually re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.

Satellite imagery gathered by NASA also shows decreased spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere over the past five years. Scientists say this leads to earlier spring snowmelt, which when coupled with warming atmospheric temperatures dries out fire fuels, like the highly flammable black spruce, early in the fire season.

Approximately 35 percent of global soil carbon is stored in tundra and boreal forests, according to an article York and other scientists published in the American Meteorological Society's State of the Climate report for 2017. When those carbon-storing fuels dry out early in the season, they provide ample fuel for wildfires. When they burn, that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, further exacerbating a warming Arctic climate.

York says Alaska is now caught in this dangerous cycle, and it's her job to provide fire officials with the science they need to plan cost-effective fire management.

Evidence suggests that more fires translates to higher suppression costs. In fact, the U.S. Department of the Interior reports spending more than $5 billion dollars on wildfire response in 2018 -- the largest amount to date. UAF economist Joe Little says looking into the cost of fires in Alaska is complex, but necessary.

"We're starting to take a look at it, but it's difficult considering the probabilistic nature of fires," Little said. "Given what climate models are projecting for fire occurrence and severity, it should translate into higher cost in the future."

Jennifer Schmidt is an assistant professor of natural resource management and policy at the Institute for Social and Economic Research in Anchorage. She says the growing body of wildfire-related economic research has not yet quantified the costs associated with threats to human life and property damage. However, she says those are sure to be large factors in the state's future wildfire-related expenses.

Schmidt says there is one potential solution: Communities developing in forested areas, otherwise known as the wildland-urban interface, can be proactive to reduce fire fuels near their homes, therefore mitigating the need to suppress fires. But she says there's a time crunch.

"We do definitely need to get going now," Schmidt said. "I hope that one of the things that maybe can come out of these higher-activity years is that communities look at becoming Firewise communities."

Being "Firewise" is about everyday citizens "taking action and ownership in preparing and protecting their homes against wildfire," according to the National Fire Protection Association. It's a national educational outreach that Schmidt hopes will reduce future wildfire suppression costs in Alaska. Click here for Firewise resources.

York, Little, and Schmidt all agree that reducing the costs associated with suppression efforts will likely be an economic hardship for Alaska well into the future. However, they are at the forefront of a relatively new scientific process working to quantify and better understand the economic toll of wildfires on society.

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