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Extreme lightning sparks more Alaska wildfires in already historic season

More than 2.4 million acres have burned across the interior this year, among the most burned acreage so early in the year in at least eight decades

The East Fork Fire burns about 25 miles north of St. Mary's, Alaska, on June 2. (Pat Johnson/BLM Alaska Fire Service/AP)
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An unusual spate of lightning has ignited more than 50 new wildfires in Alaska, worsening air quality, spurring communities to prepare to evacuate and exacerbating an already historic fire season in the state.

More than 2.4 million acres have burned across the interior this year — among the most burned acres so early in the year in at least eight decades. As of Wednesday, more than 200 fires are actively burning across the state, straining firefighting resources.

Wildfire smoke has worsened air quality over the central and eastern interior and the western Yukon territory. On Tuesday, communities in Anderson, Clear and Clear Space Force Station were advised to prepare a “go bag.” Predicted thunderstorms could bring lightning that could spark new wildfires.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC) issued a Preparedness Level 5, the highest level, for the seventh day in a row Wednesday. The designation is assigned “when large fires that require incident management teams are occurring in several areas” and based on “burning conditions, the probability of new ignitions, the potential for extreme fire behavior, predicted weather, and resource availability.”

Alaska’s June wildfires break records, fueled by hot, dry weather

Hot, dry conditions are fueling this year’s unprecedented activity. Snowpack was unusually sparse in the state’s southwest this winter, which was followed by a dry and warm spring. An ever-warming atmosphere, brought on by human-caused climate change, has also lengthened the growing season and increased the amount of trees and plants, which act as fuel.

Then the lightning came, providing the necessary initial spark. An outbreak of thunderstorms in late May and early June brought lightning and ignited vegetation. Communities were evacuated, and dense smoke plumes appeared over Fairbanks.

More than a million acres had burned by June 18, over a week earlier than any other season in the modern record.

One of the wildfires that ignited in June, known as Upper Talarik, has burned a field camp associated with the Pebble Mine project, a controversial proposal to build a massive open-pit gold and copper mine above Bristol Bay, the world’s most prolific sockeye salmon fishery.

Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership, said the fire burned a majority of the company’s supply camp, located about 17 miles northwest of the community of Iliamna, around July 3.

“It’s important to note that we only have supplies at this camp and no staff,” Heatwole said. “Thus, our field personnel were never in harm’s way.”

EPA proposes protections for world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery

Joe Holzinger, a spokesman on the Lime Fire complex — an area that includes 18 separate fires that all started due to lightning, including the Upper Talarik, that have already burned a combined 782,000 acres — said Pebble Mine’s representatives, along with firefighters, planned to visit the site and assess the damage on Thursday.

Environmentalists have long fought to stop the mine from being built and the Biden administration is considering banning such development in the area. Mary Catharine Martin, a spokeswoman for SalmonState, an environmental organization, described the Pebble project as “on political life support and now their liability has just increased.”

“It’s a mess on state land,” she said.

What you need to know about how wildfires spread

This past weekend, another round of thunderstorms brought an exceptional siege of lightning, worsening the fire conditions. An unusual weather pattern over the North Pacific pumped moisture into the heart of Alaska beginning Friday, which allowed daily rounds of thunderstorms to develop over the mountains in the eastern portions of the state and northwest Yukon. As these storms crawled northwest through Alaska’s interior, thousands of lightning strikes lit up the region.

On Saturday, there were more than 7,180 lightning strikes in Alaska and neighboring sections of Canada, per the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service. An additional 10,500 lightning bolts struck the next day. The tally is among Alaska’s highest two-day lightning totals in the past decade.

Thunderstorms are not uncommon in the Alaskan summer, but this degree of storminess is quite unusual.

Rick Thoman, a climate expert who works with the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center, acknowledges that historical counts of lightning strikes are hard to come by, but in his experience, “the amount of lightning over the weekend, with a two-day total of nearly 18,000 strikes in and near Alaska,” was exceptional, the type of barrage that “likely only happens once every few summers.”

Monday and Tuesday had seen an additional cumulative 10,195 strikes as of 10 p.m. Alaska time on Tuesday.

Forecasters think the unusually active lightning will worsen the fire situation for the state, leading to numerous ignitions that could each grow into large wildfires.

More than 50 wildfires have started since Sunday, and more will probably develop through the coming weekend as lightning continues and fires initially too small for detection expand.

The National Weather Service office in Fairbanks has issued a red-flag warning for fire weather across much of the state’s interior. “Ample lightning,” the warning advises — as many as “5000 lightning strokes a day” — “could lead to numerous new fire starts” through Friday.

Wildfires are common in the 49th state. Sparked by lightning and human activity, they rip through the extremely flammable black spruce forests that dot Alaskan permafrost between May and August. The average wildfire season between 1950 and 2019 in the state saw around 975,000 acres burn, according to data from the AICC.

Some years see almost no wildfire activity, while others feature a combination of atmospheric conditions for wildfire development and spread, such as dry conditions, frequent lightning-producing thunderstorms and hot spells.

2022 is gearing up to be one of the more active years. Only one other year — 2015 — had seen more burned acres at this point in the season in the reliable record. Fires in 2015 went on to burn more than 5 million acres of Alaskan wildland.

Kasha Patel contributed to this report.

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