After a slow start, Alaska wildfire season wraps up as unremarkable
Unusual weather conditions delayed fires until waves of lightning struck in late July
The Delta Fire burns on July 30 in the Donnelly Training Area southeast of Fairbanks. The fire, which started on July 26, was among those sparked by waves of lightning strikes that arrived in Alaska in late July. It ultimately grew to over 57,000 acres, according to wildfire managers. (Photo by Lakota Burwell/Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service)
An Alaska wildfire season that wound up with an unexceptional amount of area burned took an unusual route to get there.
After a record-slow start, the Alaska wildfire season tally as of Wednesday stood at 343 fires covering 297,747 acres, according to state wildfire managers. That is well below the recent years’ median of about 1 million acres but within the usual range of the past two decades.
Almost all of Alaska’s wildfires came extremely late. Less than 3,000 acres had burned in Alaska through late July, said Beth Ipsen, a public information officer with the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service.
The slow start was part of “a weird summer” that featured very late snowmelt in many areas and snow in Fairbanks in early June, followed by some record high temperatures on the North Slope, among other events, said Rick Thoman, a scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
While the fire season ended up with acreage typical for a low year, “it’s the timing that was so remarkable,” he said.
The era of ultra-low Alaska fire seasons, with totals under 100,000 acres, appears to be over, Thoman said. Some of that is the result of wildfires emerging in places that previously burned only rarely, he said. “These fires in places that are not-so-historically fire-prone are preventing us from getting years that are super low,” he said.
Alaska is often affected by events in the boreal forest beyond national borders, and that was the case his year.
The record wildfire season in Canada featured an evacuation of nearly the entire Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife and produced smoke that poured into the U.S. East Coast and Midwest and even Europe. It also triggered Alaska air-quality advisories stretching from Southeast to the North Slope.
For Alaska-based fire managers, the contrast with conditions in Canada made for some usual staffing demands.
In the early summer, Alaska crews were sent out of the state, mostly to Canada, said Ipsen of the BLM’s Alaska Fire Service. But once Alaska fires started burning in earnest, efforts in the state got assistance from the south, she said. In addition to the Alaska firefighters who were called back, 16 Lower 48 crews, each with about 20 people, came to work on major fires that were sparked by late-summer lightning.
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