FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A record number of acres have burned this month in Alaska, forcing Indigenous people from their homes, compromising air quality and stretching firefighting resources thin.
The blazes reflect some of the shifts the state is experiencing amid climate change, as longer growing seasons thicken tundra vegetation, allowing wildfire spread to skyrocket in recent years. More than 2.5 times more acres burned from 2001 to 2020 than in the previous two decades, according to the International Arctic Research Center.
Forecasts predict that more exceptional heat will swell over the state during the next week, which could spark new ignitions.
“The air quality could be VERY UNHEALTHY depending on wind flow and drainage through the mountain passes,” the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation cautioned.
Massive tundra blazes compel residents to flee, stress responders
Many of the fires have started in remote areas. This month, the East Fork Fire threatened the 600-person Indigenous Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s, which lies near the mouth of Yukon River and is reachable only by boat or bush plane. So when it got close to town, officials decided to give vulnerable residents the option to evacuate.
“We called elders,” Dee Dee Ivanoff, the local school district superintendent, said in an interview. “And if they wanted to go, they went.”
About 180 people, including some with respiratory problems, decided to leave St. Mary’s and a neighboring village, Pitkas Point. Local airlines dispatched planes to the St. Mary’s airport and loaded them one by one; at one point, Ivanoff said, she counted eight Cessnas on the tarmac.
Although some blazes, like the East Fork Fire, have threatened communities and infrastructure, until recently wildfire managers had enough crew and equipment to respond aggressively.
But as hot, dry conditions persist and lightning strikes start more fires across the state, crews are being stretched, said Norm McDonald, a top state wildfire official.
Two planeloads of firefighters have already flown from the Lower 48 to Alaska, and another is on its way. But managers are also struggling to keep up with fires burning in other areas of the country, including the Southwest, and nationwide, they’re having trouble recruiting wildland firefighters, McDonald said.
“Nationally, we are challenged with the shortage of resources — not just Alaska,” McDonald said. “It’s just a real tough, hard job.”
In St. Mary’s, residents who stayed in town thanked firefighters by delivering them fry bread and homemade meals, said Ivanoff, who has helped coordinate the village’s response.
The lightning-caused fire never broke through the main containment line, and nearly all evacuees have now returned home, she said.
But residents, who depend on fish and wildlife harvests to feed their families, now must contend with the fire’s aftermath: Areas of tundra where they picked berries have burned, Ivanoff said, and some community members are wondering how firefighting retardant dropped from aircraft could affect fish and moose.
Meanwhile, managers have closed Yukon River salmon harvests amid a string of poor fish returns.
Ivanoff said St. Mary’s residents are increasingly talking about the threats posed by global warming — even as they pulled together to get through the wildfire.
“It’s warmer, it’s drier, even the kids are noticing the changes,” she said. “It’s definitely not what it used to be.”
On Thursday, a brush fire started in east Anchorage, prompting road closures.
The fires in historical context
According to Rick Thoman, a climate expert who works with the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center, this year’s Alaskan wildfire season has already proved historic.
Only 11 times since 1990 has Alaska seen a million acres of wildland burn in a single year, a benchmark the current season has already surpassed with more than a month of the fire season still to come.
From @BLM_AFS Saturday morning: Alaska #wildfire total burned now at 1,005,196 acres (406,788 ha). This makes June 18 the earliest date in (at least) the past 32 years to exceed one million acres. #akwx @Climatologist49 @adndotcom @NWSFairbanks @AlaskaBeacon @capitalweather 1/2 pic.twitter.com/Cs3USGOc6s— Rick Thoman (@AlaskaWx) June 18, 2022
Much of the acreage burned to date is in the state’s southwest, where expansive fires dot a scrubby, sparsely populated landscape. Data from the Bureau of Land Management shows that more than 820,000 acres have burned there, outpacing the seasonal totals of every year but 2015.
An unusual set of atmospheric conditions converged to incite the widespread fire activity. Below-normal spring snowpack and warm March temperatures assured an early snowmelt, Thoman said in an email. Then, over the remainder of spring, lower-than-average precipitation and higher-than-average temperatures helped to fuel developing blazes.
The unusual heat and early snowmelt developed over a region that is probably facing a wildfire risk given climate change. Tribal elders of Alaska’s southwest have described longer, warmer growing seasons increasingly conducive to brush growth, Thoman said, leading to unprecedented thickness among tundra vegetation that can catch fire.
A grueling end to June
As wildfires continue to rage, unusual heat will expand across much of the state into the coming week.
A strong dome of high pressure stretching from the North Pacific into the Arctic Sea will cause temperatures to surge. The heat will be most intense in the state’s southeast, where the center of the high pressure dome will likely sit.
“Temperatures will soar starting late this weekend into mid next week across the northern and central Inner Channels,” the Weather Service in Juneau wrote in a special bulletin. “A few temperature records could fall … With around 18 hours of daylight per day, homes will be difficult to cool in the evenings.”
Hyder, a community located in Alaska’s panhandle, is forecast to see four consecutive days with a high temperature above 90 degrees. This is exceptional — it has seen only 13 days ever reach temperatures so high.
The unusual heat will envelop much of the state and will be accompanied by almost no precipitation. In Alaska’s interior, including Fairbanks, there are concerns that the period of dry warmth will be ideal for continued wildfire growth.
Alaska’s interior is currently experiencing a record-breaking dearth of precipitation. As of Saturday, Fairbanks had seen no measurable rain in 30 days, an unprecedented feat for the time of year.
Amid the warm and dry conditions, forecasters are concerned that widespread thunderstorms over the past week may have sparked a number of wildfires. While many of these fires are probably too small to detect at present, the hot weather ahead may lead to rapid growth.
Widespread lightning on Monday across central & southern Interior into Southwest Alaska. Sunday plus Monday strike total thru 10pm Monday 10,300 and counting. Past 24 hours @BLM_AFS reports 23 new #wildfires. Not good. Not good at all. #akwx @Climatologist49 pic.twitter.com/GrAxMVOO1F— Rick Thoman (@AlaskaWx) June 21, 2022
Robert Bianco, a meteorologist at the Fairbanks office of the National Weather Service, fears the fire season could “erupt” once the heat arrives. This would only further increase the toll of the already record-breaking season.