June wildfires in Alaska break records, fueled by hot, dry weather

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A record number of acres burned this month in Alaska, forcing indigenous peoples from their homes, compromising air quality and depleting firefighting resources.

More than a million acres have already caught fire, officials reported last weekend, the first date on record that the state reached that milestone. Abnormally hot and dry weather – intensified by human-induced climate change – has helped spark more than 300 wildfires in recent weeks. More than 100 are still burning, including the East Fork Fire, which charred over 165,000 acres and now ranks fifth in the state’s tundra fires on record.

The fires reflect some of the changes the state is experiencing in the face of climate change, as longer growing seasons thicken tundra vegetation, allowing fires to spread soar 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 the state during next week, which could trigger new ignitions.

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An air quality advisory now covers large parts of interior Alaska due to wildfire smoke. Wednesday, smoke pollution in Fairbanks doped at unhealthy code orange and red levels.

“Air quality could be VERY UNHEALTHY depending on wind and drainage through mountain passes,” the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation warned.

Massive tundra blazes force residents to flee, stressing responders

Many fires broke out in remote areas. Earlier this month, the fire threatened the 600-person Yup’ik Aboriginal village of Saint Mary’s, which sits near the mouth of the Yukon River and is only accessible by boat or bush plane. So when it approached the city, authorities decided to give vulnerable residents the chance to evacuate.

“We called the elders,” Dee Dee Ivanoff, the local school district superintendent, said in an interview. “And if they wanted to go, they went.”

Some 180 people, some with respiratory problems, decided to leave St. Mary’s and a nearby village, Pitkas Point. Local airlines sent planes to St. Mary’s airport and loaded them one by one; at one point, Ivanoff said, she counted eight Cessnas on the tarmac.

While some fires have threatened communities and infrastructure like the East Fork Fire, until recently wildfire officials had enough crew and equipment to respond aggressively.

But as hot, dry conditions persist and lightning strikes more fires across the state, crews are stretched, said Norm McDonald, a senior state wildfire official.

Two firefighter planes have already flown from the Lower 48 to Alaska, and another is on the way. But managers are also struggling to keep up with fires burning in other parts of the country, including the Southwest, and nationally they’re struggling to recruit wildland firefighters, McDonald said.

“Nationally, we’re facing resource scarcity — not just in Alaska,” McDonald said. “It’s just really hard, tough work.”

In St. Mary’s, residents who stayed in town thanked firefighters by delivering fried bread and homemade meals, said Ivanoff, who helped coordinate the village’s response.

The lightning-caused fire never crossed the main containment line and almost all of the evacuees have now returned home, she said.

But residents, who depend on harvests of fish and wildlife to feed their families, are now dealing with the aftermath of the fire: Areas of tundra where they picked berries have burned, Ivanoff said, and some Community members wonder how firefighting retardant dropped from planes might affect fish and moose.

Meanwhile, managers shut down Yukon River salmon harvests amid a series of low fish returns.

Ivanoff said St. Mary’s residents are increasingly talking about the threats posed by global warming — even as they came together to walk through the wildfire.

“It’s warmer, it’s drier, even the kids are noticing the changes,” he said. said. “It’s definitely not what it used to be.”

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The fires in their historical context

According to Rick Thoman, a climate expert who works with the University of Alaska’s International Center for Arctic Research, Alaska’s 2022 wildfire season has already proven historic.

Only 11 times since 1990 has Alaska seen a million acres of wild land burn in a single year, a benchmark the current season has already surpassed with more than a month of fire season ahead.

Much of the area burned to date is in the state’s southwest, where extensive fires dot a brushy, sparsely populated landscape. Data from the Bureau of Land Management shows that more than 820,000 acres have burned there, exceeding seasonal totals in every year except 2015.

An unusual set of atmospheric conditions converged to prompt widespread fire activity. A below-normal spring snowpack and warm temperatures in March ensured early snowmelt, Thoman said in an email. Then, through the rest of the spring, below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures helped fuel the developing fires.

Unusual heat and early snowmelt have developed in an area that likely faces wildfire risk given climate change. Ancient tribals in southwest Alaska described longer, warmer growing seasons increasingly conducive to brush growth, Thoman said, resulting in an unprecedented thickness of tundra vegetation that can catch fire.

As the wildfires continue to rage, unusual heat will spread across much of the state next week.

A strong high pressure dome stretching from the North Pacific to the Arctic Sea will push temperatures up. The heat will be most intense in the southeast of the state, where the center of the high-pressure dome will likely be.

“Temperatures will soar from the end of this weekend through the middle of next week in the northern and central interior channels,” the Juneau weather service wrote in a special bulletin. “A few temperature records could fall… With about 18 hours of daylight per day, homes will struggle to cool down in the evening.”

Hyder, a community in the Alaska panhandle, is expected to experience four straight days with high temperatures above 90 degrees. This is exceptional – he has only seen 13 days reach such high temperatures.

The unusual heat will envelope much of the state and be accompanied by almost no precipitation. In interior Alaska, including Fairbanks, there are concerns that the dry heat period may be ideal for the continued growth of wildfires.

Interior Alaska is currently experiencing a record shortage of precipitation. Since June 18, Fairbanks had seen no measurable rain in 30 daysan unprecedented feat for the time of year.

In the middle of the heat and dry conditions, forecasters fear that widespread thunderstorms last week sparked a number of wildfires. Although many of these fires are likely too small to detect at this time, the warm weather ahead could lead to rapid growth.

Robert Bianco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Fairbanks office, fears fire season will “erupt” once the heat arrives. This would only further increase the toll of the already record-breaking season.

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