Alaska in Brief

Alaska wildfires and their smoke force closures, cancellations and evacuations

By: - July 1, 2022 6:54 pm
A smoke jumper spays water on the Koktuli River Fire on June 16. The fire is burning north of Iliamna Lake. As of the end of Junje, the fire measured more than 176,000 acres. It was being managed with several other fires in a group called the Lime Complex. (Photo provided by the Alaska BLM Fire Service)

A smoke jumper spays water on the Koktuli River Fire on June 16. The fire is burning north of Iliamna Lake. As of the end of June, the fire measured more than 176,000 acres. It was being managed with several other fires in a group called the Lime Complex. (Photo provided by the Alaska BLM Fire Service)

Extreme wildfire conditions have prompted some evacuations, recreation-area closures, a wide-ranging ban on personal fireworks use and, in places where smoke is especially dense, triggered stern health warnings.

As of Friday, over 1.88 million acres in Alaska had burned, putting the 2022 season already among about the top dozen since the 1950s – with much of the summer fire season yet to come. The multiagency fire management group on Thursday upgraded their Alaska wildfire preparedness level to 5, the highest possible level and one that is used when there is a need for multiple incident-management teams to handle fires occurring simultaneously in several different areas. About 1,000 people were deployed on Alaska’s wildfires as of Friday, officials reported.

The state fire marshal on Thursday banned the use of fireworks for most of the areas of Interior and Southcentral Alaska; such fireworks use is unpermitted at any time in Anchorage, the state’s largest city.

“The weather forecast over much of the state for this holiday weekend will keep fire danger high,” Alaska Fire Marshal Richard Boothby said in a statement. “With much of the wildland firefighting personnel and assets already assigned to fires burning in the state, we can’t take any chances of more human-caused fires.”

Organized municipal fireworks displays for Independence Day are unaffected, however.

The Bureau of Land Management on Thursday closed trails, public-use cabins and trail shelters at a popular Interior recreation spot, Wickersham Dome, because of the 22,200-acre Minto Lakes Fire. The Wickersham Dome trailhead was being considered for use as a firefighter base camp, the BLM said. That followed a BLM decision announced on June 20 to evacuate the Arctic Circle Campground on the Dalton Highway, a popular spot for tourists, because of flames and heavy smoke from a different lightning-sparked fire. Another fire, the 1,000-acre Middle Fork Fire, forced closures of recreation sites near Chena Hot Springs, east of Fairbanks.

Residents and visitors in the Chatanika River area were ordered on Wednesday to evacuate immediately because of the Minto Lakes Fire. That followed earlier evacuation advisories for different fires.

Data shows a big increase since 2000 in the frequency of severe wildfire smoke conditions in Fairbanks. (Graph provided by Rick Thoman/Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy)
Data shows a big increase since 2000 in the frequency of severe wildfire smoke conditions in Fairbanks. (Graph provided by Rick Thoman/Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy)

Wildfires have sent dense smoke into several communities and created dangerous driving conditions in some areas. In Nome, air quality at one point on Wednesday reached well into emergency conditions. A PurpleAir sensor – an air-quality monitoring device provided by a Utah-based company to scientists and public agencies – detected a fine-particulate measurement of over 700 at one point on Friday. Anything over 300 is considered hazardous to all people, not just to those with compromised respiratory conditions, according to Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The Norton Sound Health Corp., which maintains the Nome Purple Air sensor, closed early on Friday because of the dense smoke and sent out a public advisory that morning. “Stay indoors with your windows and doors closed. People with respiratory illnesses should remain indoors to avoid inhaling smoke. If driving, please slow down, turn on head lights, and leave plenty of distance ahead of you,” the advisory said.

In Fairbanks, where an increase in smoky days has correlated with long-term warming of the climate, several public events were canceled or postponed because of smoke. Among those were the Pollinator Days activities planned at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Georgeson Botanical Garden.

Wildfires this year have been most intense in southwestern Alaska, where two of the biggest Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta tundra fires on record broke out this summer, and in Interior Alaska. The farthest north fire to date was reported in the North Slope oilfield area near the Beaufort Sea coastline. A small fire was ignited on Thursday when workers shot explosives at a caribou that was obstructing the runway at the airstrip that serves the Point Thomson field, according to state fire officials. The airstrip caught fire, but the Greater Prudhoe Bay Fire Department extinguished the blaze, which was estimated at an eighth of an acre, according to fire officials.

Climate change has made large fire seasons markedly more common in Alaska since about 1990, according to a 2020 report from UAF’s International Arctic Research Center. “Earlier snow melt, later winters, higher temperatures, more frequent lightning strikes, and changing vegetation are altering Alaska’s fire environment,” the report said.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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