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‘It goes up like tinder’: unprecedented flames envelop Alaska | Alaska

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Alaska has seen more than 500 wildfires since early April, forcing the evacuation of mining camps, villages and remote cabins.

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

Today, 264 individual fires are burning in the state. 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 images show rust-red scars with streaks of smoke across the state’s west and southwest, where fires continue to smolder. May and June set Alaska drought records.

Map of active wildfires burning 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 strikes that spark ignition, and a landscape ready to burn.

“Drought, early snowmelt, wind and lightning strikes all combined to make for a difficult start to the season,” Thoman said.

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

In July, for example, nearly 40,000 lightning strikes were recorded statewide in a four-day period, while Alaska averages about 60,000 lightning strikes over the course of a year.

The strikes connected with a landscape that was ready to burn. Willows and alder in the state’s forests have grown thicker and taller, while black spruce, another tree common in the forests, is growing taller and working up the hills. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures have increased vegetation on the tundra. “Eventually you just have more material to burn,” Thoman said.

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

Climate crisis plays a role in the changing conditions, Thoman said. “It’s not just Alaska. Across the board in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic you see this increase in fires. Taking into account the lightning, the drought, the early melting of the snow – there is no doubt that the warming planet is playing a big part in this.”

Sam Harrel, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he could not recall such a drastic year of firefighting in the state. “These lightning storms are relentless. You have the early snowmelt and dead grass on the tundra. One stroke and the dead grass rises like tinder.”

Long fingers of fire

The increase in flammable vegetation creates fires that are “much more intense,” said Kale Casey, the chief information officer for Alaska Incident Management Green Team, which helps coordinate responses to fires across the state. Fires this year cause burns. Casey said he hasn’t seen it in his 17 years in the firefighting business.

“Instead of running through the trees and scorching the earth, these guys burn deep and take everything,” he said of the fires.

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

Rather than working quickly over the “duff layer,” the dense maps of grass and scrub that break up along the top of the ground, today’s fires often burn through the duff into the mineral soil below, explains Zav Grabinski, a science communicator at the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, a wildfire research center in Alaska.

“If the fire burns through the duff and reaches mineral soil, that’s the sign of a very hot and deep fire,” Grabinski said. “This year’s duff is bone dry, causing these burns. In a normal year without drought, you can dig and find moisture fairly quickly.”

A firefighter with a chainsaw is surrounded by flames as a forest fire turns the forest orange and fills it with smoke.
Alaska wildfires have intensified, burning deep in the tundra and creating more resilient coals that could lead to perennial fires. Photo: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Deeper fires can also mean more resilient coals. Embers nest in the duff, isolated over the long winter from snow, feeding on combustible peat. In the spring, the winds cause the embers to flare up again, creating residual fires — or what firefighters call “zombie fires.”

“With fires burning hotter and burning deeper into the forest floor, we’ve seen that several times,” Casey said. “The fire bubbles in there and then wakes up again. That is always discouraging.”

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

Smoke and destruction

One of the longest-burning fires in the state is the Upper Talarik Fire, part of what is now known as the Lime Fire complex, not far from the proposed site for the controversial Pebble mine, one of the world’s largest open pits. gold and copper mines.

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

Due to Alaska’s large size and small population density, fires have resulted in only a handful of community evacuations. Homeowners in Anderson, a town about 80 miles southwest of Fairbanks, were told to “bring your family and pets and leave now.” At least one house in the area has burned down, although officials cannot confirm an exact number.

A helicopter is a tiny speck in the sky next to the immense column of smoke rising from a forest fire.
Due to Alaska’s sparse population, fires have caused only a handful of evacuations, but smoke pollution has caused health problems. Photo: Lance King/Getty Images

One of the other effects was smoke pollution. Harrel pointed to the East Fork fire and threatened… the community of Saint Mary’s on the Yukon River and Pitkas Point, opposite. At one point, the smoke was so bad that residents couldn’t see the banks on the other side of the river, Harrel said. People did yard work with respirators. While the drought allowed residents to drive ATVs on lower riverbeds rather than bumpy riverbank paths, and the smoke kept mosquitoes away (Alaskans call the insects the “state bird”), the fires limited solar panel production and threatened respiratory health.

The smoke causes headaches, burning eyes and bronchitis. This spring, a hospital in Nome, in western Alaska, registered 600 parts per million particulate matter for PM2.5. Doctors say anything above 150 parts per million can damage the lungs and trigger asthma.

Seth Kantner, who grew up in a sod hut on the Kobuk River near Kotzebue along Alaska’s western coast, and his daughter built a cabin 40 miles (64 km) up the Noatak, said he is constantly concerned about both structures. burning in the advancing Derby Creek. fire, especially when he works on commercial ocean fishing. “Very little rain has fallen since the snow melted in May. We had sun, but not much precipitation. It’s nerve-wracking worrying about the fires.”

The new normal

While decades of poor forest management have contributed for some historic fires in California and the Pacific Northwest, Alaska’s situation is different, Casey said. Over the years, most fires in the state had continued to burn because of their remoteness: “In Alaska, we basically fight fires by plane or boat. [The fires] are just so hard to get to,” he noted.

Today, a conglomerate of state and federal firefighters deployed by helicopter, parachute, boat, and truck works alongside crews from other US states. with the idea that the Alaska crews will go back and forth once the Alaska season winds down and the fires increase further south. Aircraft nicknamed “Fire Bosses,” drop 800 gallons of water from lakes and rivers above the fires, allowing firefighters to create perimeters in an effort to stop the spread.

Still, Casey said, his crews are bracing for the coming months.

“Here we are, mid-July. At the moment it can go in many different directions. 2009. 2004. We have all these memories of these years. In our careers we hear the word ‘records’ more and more. We hope for rain. But as we all know in the business, hope is not a strategy to fight fire.”

A firefighter walks with his head bowed and tools on a road through a smoke-filled forest.  Behind the first, a vehicle and other firefighters can be seen.
Fire crews in Alaska brace themselves for the coming months and hope for rain. “But hope isn’t a fire-fighting strategy,” Kale Casey said. Photo: Mike McMillan/AP

Rick Halford, a former Alaska Legislature Senate Speaker and air taxi operator who has witnessed fire seasons from his planes, said he has never seen such an intense weather season. “In Alaska, you had lightning and thunder so rarely that it scared your kids,” Halford said. “It’s not like that anymore. ”

Halford hopes for late summer’s heavy rains, but after living in Alaska for more than half a century, he has learned that depending on the weather is a risky prospect. As for the bigger reason behind the increase in fires, he said the science confirms what he can see from the windows of his cockpit. “The fire seasons are getting worse, and that’s a fact,” he added.

“This may well be our worst year. This reflects the changes around the planet. Even if these fires are not generated by human action, they are still part of what we are changing on this earth. It just keeps getting warmer.”

Francis Mitchell, a former firefighter and educator, said people at his home in McGrath, in southwestern Alaska, have been fighting fires since the 1940s. He recalled that in the 1960s a number of civilian squads of the village were “trained” to fight at a distance. “The plane would show up, and you just got in and fought the fire. That was your education.”

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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