Drought, heat and thunderstorms have Alaska burning

This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the climatic table collaboration.

It’s gearing up to be a record year for fires in Alaska. By the end of June, more than 1.5 million acres had burned, mostly in the southwestern part of the state. Several evacuation orders have been issued and much of Alaska has been covered in smoke. Only on the 4th of July, 20 new fires lit.

Alaska fire experts say the season is off to an incredibly fast start, with fires sparked by a severe drought, high temperatures and a lot of lightning. More acreage burned in June than the 2020 and 2021 Alaskan fire seasons combined. According to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the Alaska Climate Policy and Assessment Center, this is the first time this season that a million acres have burned. This month, he said, could set the stage for “a really epic fire season.”

As of June 14, 2022, there were 85 active fires statewide. More than half of them in southwestern Alaska, shown in a natural-color image (top) acquired on June 10, 2022, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Experts say the location of the fires is remarkable. Although lightning and wildfires are more common in interior Alaska, many of June’s fires were in southwestern Alaska, where the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta experienced two record-breaking tundra fires, and the Bristol Bay experienced an unprecedented bushfire season. “We see fires between Alaska and the Brooks Ranges, in interior Alaska and western Alaska, but these that are further south, southwest and out into the ocean and tundra are definitely unusual, especially for such a large area,” he said. Zav. Grabinski, a communication specialist with the Alaska Fire Science Consortium. In the 20th century, tundra fires weren’t very big, Grabinski said. But as the tundra warms, it becomes more hospitable to larger plants like shrubs, which then become fuel for fires.

And in south-central Alaska, where most Alaskans live, a persistent drought, lightning strikes and human-caused ignitions including fireworks or downed power lines have increased fire risk. Last month, in the span of a few days, Anchorage managed to contain two fires that broke out near city parks.

With fire comes smoke. Given the combination of the southwestern Alaska fires and new fire activity in interior Alaska, Thoman says he expects to see a lot of smoke, which will likely remain statewide until the late-summer rains. The city of Fairbanks has already broken a record for the most days in June that had visibility-restricting smoke: 13. This puts residents at higher risk for smoke-related health problems, such as headaches and burning sensations. the eyes, as well as more serious diseases such as bronchitis. , chronic heart and lung diseases, asthma and emphysema. Smoke can also disrupt subsistence life, as gathering food, hunting and fishing, and participating in the important cultural traditions associated with these activities become increasingly difficult.

The East Fork Fire burns near St. Mary’s on June 10. Photo by Ryan MacPherson/BLM Alaska Fire Service

Fires have been burning near Gwich’in communities in Alaska, bringing massive amounts of smoke and sometimes evacuations. Faced with the challenge of adapting to a future of Arctic fires, the Gwich’in Council International, a nonprofit organization representing 9,000 Gwich’in people in the US and Canada, is spearheading projects to improve the understand fire ecology, reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires, and review fire management practices. Devlin Fernandes, executive director of the Gwich’in Council International, said the efforts were “driven by a desire for greater cooperation and understanding about wildfires in the Arctic and how to apply indigenous knowledge to their management.” Part of the project involves sharing indigenous fire management strategies, such as details on controlled burning. Gwich’in people traditionally burned grass in early spring increase biodiversity and fertilize the soil. Timing was important: burns were always done when there was still snow on the ground because if the fires started later, the burn could get out of control.

Indigenous knowledge is also filling in gaps on other topics, such as whether and how lightning has changed in recent decades. From a Western scientific perspective, Thoman, Alaska’s weather expert, said it’s hard to tell if there’s more lightning in Alaska.

Alaska’s fire season is off to a spectacular start. #Alaska #ClimateCrisis #Wildfires #Lightning

The Hog Butte Fire burns about 39 miles southwest of Lake Minchumina on June 7. Photo by Ryan MacPherson/BLM Alaska Fire Service

“The technology involved in lightning detection has changed a lot in the last 30 years,” he said. “You just can’t compare lightning counts from the 1990s to today. If you just look at the raw numbers, they’ve gone up a lot, but it’s not even an apples to oranges comparison. It’s an apples to hamburgers comparison.”

But elders in western and southwestern Alaska say unequivocally that there is a lot more lightning now than there used to be, Thoman said. Elders in Utqiaġvik, the country’s northernmost city, recall never seeing a thunderstorm before 1992, notes a 2022 Arctic Council report on forest fires in the Arctic. The researchers predict this trend will continue, with lightning increasing above the 50th parallel, an area that includes all of Alaska.

“There’s enough fire on the ground right now that these kinds of smoke conditions and active fires are going to be with us until we get into the rainy season,” Thorman said. “That is sure.”

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