U.S. Cities Experience Rare Wildfires

Alaska is burning this year in ways rarely or ever seen, from the largest wildfire in a typically mainly fireproof southwest region to a pair of blazes that ripped through forests and produced smoke that blew hundreds of miles to the Bering Sea community of Nome, where the normally crystal-clear air was pushed into the extremely unhealthy category.

Already more than 530 wildfires have burned an area the size of Connecticut and the usual worst of the fire season lays ahead.

While little property has burned, some residents have been forced to evacuate and one person was killed — a helicopter pilot died last month when he crashed while attempting to carry a load of equipment for firefighters.

Recent rains have helped but longer-term forecasts are showing a pattern similar to 2004, when July rains gave way to high-pressure systems, hot days, low humidity and lightning strikes that fueled Alaska’s worst fire year.

In 2004, the acreage burned by mid-July was about the same as now, but by the time that fire season ended, 10,156 square miles (26,304 square kilometers) were charred.

Heat waves and droughts, which are exacerbated by a warming climate, are making wildfires more frequent, destructive, and harder to fight in many places.

This month, wildfires have torn through Portugal, Spain, France, England and Germany, which have seen record-high temperatures.

California has recorded its largest, most destructive and deadliest wildfires in the last five years and with the state deep in drought authorities are girding for what may be a late summer and fall filled with smoke and flames.

Alaska, the nation’s largest state, also has been dry. Parts saw an early snow melt and then a largely rain-free June that dried out the duff layer — the band of decaying moss and grasses that blankets the floors of boreal forests and the tundra.

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