‘It lights up like tinder’: unprecedented fires engulf Alaska | Alaska

Alaska has seen more than 500 wildfires since early April, forcing mining camps, towns and remote cabins to be evacuated.

By June 15, more than 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) in the state had already burned, roughly the number of acres that would normally burn in an entire fire season. As of mid-July, more than 3 million acres of land had burned, putting the state at risk of breaking its 2004 record of 6.5 million acres (2.6 million hectares) burned.

There are 264 individual fires burning across the state today. The East Fork complex, which ignited in western Alaska on May 31, and the Lime complex fire over Bristol Bay have already destroyed more than 1 million acres. Satellite photos show rust-red scars trailing wisps of smoke across the western and southwestern parts of the state, where fires continue to burn. May and June set Alaskan records for dryness.

Map of active wildfires in Alaska.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, of this year’s fires.

Experts like Thoman attribute the burn to two factors: an unusual amount of lightning causing ignitions and a landscape primed to burn.

“Drought, early snowmelt, winds and lightning have combined to create a rough start to the season,” Thoman said.

The high number of lightning strikes is the result of increased vapor in relatively warmer air across the state, which in turn has increased the number of thunderstorms, Thoman explained.

During a four-day span in July, for example, nearly 40,000 lightning strikes were recorded across the state, while Alaska averages 60,000 lightning strikes over the course of a year.

The blows connected with a landscape about to burn. Willows and alders in the state’s forests have grown thicker and taller, while black spruce, another common forest tree, grows larger and climbs the hills. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures have increased vegetation on the tundra. “At the end of the day, you just have more material to burn,” Thoman said.

An aerial view of the Alaskan landscape with plumes of smoke filling the sky
The East Fork Fire can be seen near Saint Mary’s, Alaska on June 9. The fire is within two miles of two Alaska Native villages, prompting evacuations. Photo: BLM Alaska Fire Service/AP

The climate crisis is playing a role in the changing conditions, Thoman said. “It’s not just Alaska. In general, in the Arctic and subarctic, you’re seeing this increase in fires. Taking into account the lightning, the drought, the early melting, there is no doubt that global warming is playing a very important role in this.

Sam Harrel, information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he couldn’t remember such a drastic year of fire suppression in the state. “These thunderstorms are relentless. You have the snowpack melting early and the dead grass on the tundra. One blow and the dead grass goes up like tinder.

long fingers of fire

The increase in flammable vegetation is creating fires that are “much more intense,” said Kale Casey, chief information officer for the Alaska Incident Management Green Team, which helps coordinate fire responses across the state. This year’s fires are causing burns that Casey said she hasn’t seen in her 17 years of firefighting work.

“Instead of running through the trees and just burning the ground, these guys are burning deep, getting everything,” he said of the fires.

Casey and his firefighters have also noticed what he described as “long fingers of fire” burning deep into the tundra.

Instead of quickly working through the “garbage layer,” the dense maps of decaying grass and brush along the top of the soil, today’s fires often burn the debris down to the mineral soil. below, explained Zav Grabinski, science communicator at Alaska Fire. Science Consortium, a wildfire research center in Alaska.

“If the fire burns through the slag and into the mineral soil, that’s a sign of a very hot and deep fire,” Grabinski said. “This year’s trash is completely dry, creating these burns. In a normal year without drought, you can dig and find moisture pretty quickly.”

A firefighter wielding a chainsaw is surrounded by flames as a forest fire turns the forest orange and fills it with smoke.
Alaska’s wildfires have grown more intense, burning deep into the tundra and creating tougher coals that can fuel remnant fires. Photograph: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Deeper fires can also mean stronger coals. Embers nest in leaf litter, insulated from snow during the long winter, and feed on flammable peat. When spring comes, the winds cause the embers to reignite, creating remnant fires, or what firefighters call “zombie fires.”

“With the fires burning hotter and burning deeper into the forest floor, we’ve seen it multiple times,” Casey said. “Fire augurs in there, then wakes up again. That’s always discouraging.”

Casey said zombie fires could be responsible for some of the first fires the state saw in April.

Smoke and destruction

One of the longest-running fires stalking the state is the Upper Talarik fire, part of what is now known as the Lime fire complex, not far from the proposed site of the controversial Pebble mine, one of the gold and gold mines largest open pit in the world. copper mines

On June 30, the Upper Talarik fire destroyed a supply camp for the Pebble Partnership, the conglomerate vying to build the mines. A charred jumble of twisted augurs and Quonset hut skeletons was all that was left of the fire in its wake.

Due to Alaska’s large size and low population density, the fires have only prompted the evacuation of a handful of communities. Homeowners in Anderson, a city located about 80 miles (129 km) southwest of Fairbanks, were told to “take your family and pets and go now.” At least one house burned in the area, although authorities cannot confirm an exact number.

A helicopter is a small point in the sky next to the immense column of smoke that rises from a forest fire.
The fires have only caused a handful of evacuations due to Alaska’s small population density, but smoke pollution has caused health problems. Photograph: Lance King/Getty Images

Among the other impacts has been smoke pollution. Harrel pointed to the East Fork fire, threatening the community of Saint Mary’s on the Yukon River and Pitkas Point, directly across the street. At one point, the smoke was so strong that residents couldn’t see the banks on the other side of the river, Harrel said. People worked in the garden with respirators. Although the drought allowed residents to drive ATVs down lower-lying riverbeds instead of bumpy trails along the riverbank, and the smoke kept mosquitoes away (Alaskans refer to insects such as the “state bird”), the fires limited the production of solar panels and threatened respiratory health. .

The smoke causes headaches, burning eyes and bronchitis. This spring, a hospital in Nome, in western Alaska, recorded 600 parts per million of PM2.5 particles. Doctors say that more than 150 parts per million particles can damage the lungs and trigger asthma.

Seth Kantner, who grew up in a sod cabin on the Kobuk River near Kotzebue along Alaska’s western coast, and built a cabin for his daughter 40 miles (64 km) up the Noatak River, said he constantly worries. that both structures burn in the encroaching Derby Creek. fire, especially when he is working in commercial fishing in the ocean. He has had very little rain since the snow melted in May. We have had sunshine, but not much precipitation. It is stressful to worry about fires.

the new normal

While decades of poor forest management have contributed to a series of historic fires in California and the Pacific Northwest, Alaska’s situation is different, Casey said. Over the years, most of the fires in the state had been left to burn due to their remote nature: “In Alaska, we basically fight fires with planes or boats. [The fires] they are so hard to reach,” he said.

Today, a conglomerate of state and federal firefighters deployed by helicopter, parachute, boat, and truck, work with crews from other US states. with the idea that Alaskan crews will reciprocate once the Alaskan season winds down and fires rage farther south. Planes dubbed “Fire Chiefs” drop 800 gallons of water collected from lakes and rivers onto the fires, allowing firefighters to create perimeters in an effort to stop the spread.

Still, Casey said, his teams are preparing for the coming months.

“Here we are, in the middle of July. Right now it could go many different ways. 2009. 2004. We have all these memories from these years. In our careers, we hear the word ‘records’ more and more. We expect rain. But as we all know in the trade, hope is not a firefighting strategy.”

A firefighter, head down and carrying tools, walks down a path through a smoke-filled forest.  A vehicle and other firefighters can be seen behind the first.
Firefighting crews in Alaska are preparing for the coming months and hoping for rain. “But hope is not a firefighting strategy,” Kale Casey said. Photograph: Mike McMillan/AP

Rick Halford, a former Senate chairman of the Alaska legislature and an air taxi operator who has witnessed fire seasons from his planes, said he had never seen such an intense weather season. “In Alaska, there was lightning and thunder so rarely that their children were shocked,” Halford said. “It’s not like that. ”

Halford is looking forward to heavy rains in late summer, but has learned after more than half a century living in Alaska that relying on the weather is a risky prospect. As for the biggest reason behind the increase in fires, he said science confirms what he can see from his cabin windows. “Fire seasons are getting worse, and that’s a fact,” he added.

“This may end up being our worst year. This is a reflection of changes across the planet. Even if these fires are not caused by human action, they are still part of what we are changing on this Earth. Things are heating up.”

Francis Mitchell, a former emergency firefighter and public information officer, said people at his home in McGrath, in southwestern Alaska, have been fighting fires since the 1940s. He recalled that in the 1960s, several civilian crews from the villages were “trained” to fight remotely. “The plane appeared, you got on and fought the fire. That was your training.

The spread of this year’s fires shocked him, he said. “It’s just not what we’re used to seeing.”

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