The West Is Still On Fire

Just in time for peak tourist season, Montana’s Glacier National Park is on fire. As of July 28, some 3,200 acres of the park were engulfed by wildfire, which began a week ago and caused park officials to shut down three separate campsites throughout the park as well as close off the St. Mary Visitor Center. As of the 29th, the wildfire was 56 percent contained, and portions of the park that were previously closed have been reopened to the public — but firefighters are still working to contain the remaining portion of the fire.

The Glacier National Park fire is just another example of the disruption the 2015 wildfire season has already caused for Western states. Plagued by high temperatures, low snowpack, and continued drought, states from Alaska to California are in the midst of one of the earliest and most prolific fire seasons on record. As of the 28th, 34,995 large fires had burned over 5,569,671 acres in 2015 — almost 2 million acres above the 10-year average. And that’s not to mention Western Canada, which is even worse.

In Alaska alone, fires of all sizes have burned nearly 5 million acres, paving the way for the state’s worst fire season ever. Alaskan wildfires are particularly concerning because the state sits on vast tracts of permafrost — permanently frozen soil and water that contains more carbon than is currently contained in the atmosphere. Wildfires burn away the top layer of earth, whether that’s trees, brush, leaves, or other material that rests on a forest floor. But in Alaska, increasingly powerful fires not only strip away the top layer of organic material — they also burn organic matter underground, removing the protective layer of trees and pine needles that insulates the permafrost from the sun’s rays. Without that protective layer, heat from the sun has a much easier time turning permafrost from frozen organic matter to soupy organic matter that can release dangerous greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere.

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