Alaska’s wildfire season is the latest climate change-fueled disaster

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Alaska’s devastating wildfire season is the latest climate change-fueled disaster

The United States’ summer from hell just keeps rolling. After floods in Yellowstone National Park, heat waves from Phoenix to Philadelphia, and drought-baked reservoirs dropping to near unusable levels, a potentially historic wildfire season in Alaska has emerged as the country’s latest climate disaster.

Fire has always been part of Alaska’s environment, but hotter, drier summers are supercharging the seasons there just like they are in the American West. Grid spoke with Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — where wildfire smoke has made air quality “unhealthy,” according to AirNow.gov — to hear how various factors have come together to set Alaska ablaze and what to expect in the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: What is the wildfire situation in Alaska so far this year?

Rick Thoman: We are seeing, up to this point, one of the largest wildfire seasons on record in Alaska. As of this morning, Alaska Fire Service analysts estimate 2.32 million acres have burned. That by itself is a very large season, but it’s only July 5 now, and this is about the traditional halfway point of the season for Alaska wildfire. There are more than 200 active fires currently, and warm and basically dry weather forecasts continue in the central and eastern portions of the state for at least another week. So, really quite a remarkable season so far.

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G: How does that compare to other years? Where does this fit in historically?

RT: We probably passed the million-acre mark the earliest in 50 years, but we have the numbers to show it since about 1990. And we passed the 2 million-acre mark right in stride with the 2015 season, which wound up being the second-largest season on record. This is definitely going to be historic; whether it reaches the highest, that will depend on what the weather does in the coming weeks.

G: What are some of the impacts so far, whether from the fires themselves or from the resulting smoke?

RT: Big fires northwest of Fairbanks and just north of Denali National Park prompted various evacuation alert levels for communities and homes in those areas. Probably the biggest impact though is the smoke. Smoke is widespread right now over much of interior Alaska, and certainly the central and eastern areas. Fairbanks had more days with visibility-reducing smoke in June than in any year back to the 1950s. The fires in southwest Alaska earlier in the month even brought Anchorage several very smoky days, and that’s pretty unusual for Anchorage, being right on the ocean. In many portions of the interior, the wildfire smoke is dense enough that it moves into that hazardous category.

Friday morning, a place like Nome … had this abysmally terrible air quality. The AQI [air quality index] there peaked at over 750, and they’re over 400 miles from the causative fires. I would have never believed you could get air quality that poor that far from a fire — really just stunning.

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The other impact of these big wildfire seasons — there’s nowhere near enough resources in Alaska to work these fires and so it requires assistance from the lower 48, from other countries. Not just people but equipment, from picks to airplanes. That is expensive, that is being paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. And there’s a limited amount of help that can be sent to Alaska because other places are fighting their own wildfires. So that’s certainly a change. The West wildfire season now is any day of the year that ends in a “y.”

G: What are the circumstances that have led to this remarkable fire season in Alaska?

RT: This year is actually quite interesting, in that the first million acres or so burned in southwest Alaska, an area that doesn’t get a lot of wildfire. So why did southwest Alaska kick off this year? Well, one, southwest Alaska was one of the only places in mainland Alaska that had below-normal snow cover going into the spring, and then we had warm weather starting in late March. That melted their snowpack significantly earlier than normal, which meant they started to dry out the ground that much earlier. And then we had very warm weather — not record levels, but warm weather — into May. And the last days of May and early June, widespread thunderstorms kicked off a lot of these fires.

You need all the pieces to come together, and they did this year.

Having said that, especially in the tundra areas, a significant climate change component of this is that … with decades now of warmer springs, there is much more biomass available to burn. More biomass means hotter fires, means more smoke. Most of those communities there are Indigenous communities, people living close to the land — and the not just elders but even middle-aged people are talking about how the willows and alders are so much thicker and taller on the tundra.

This year in the interior, where snowpack was way above normal in the spring, in some areas record snowpack, but since snowmelt there has been very little precipitation. It’s been warmer than normal. Not record warm in the interior by any means, but persistently warm and a complete lack of any kind of steady rain. Then the magnitude of lightning this weekend was at the high end, but it’s coming on to a landscape that has had hardly any precipitation since snowmelt.

G: It sounds like a little bit of a perfect storm this year, but also like climate change is making that storm more likely. What can we expect in the coming years?

RT: What we know for sure is since about 1990, the frequency of these million-plus acre seasons in Alaska has about doubled. So, will this be every year? Absolutely not. 2020 was an extremely low fire year in Alaska. But the frequency of these really big seasons is absolutely increasing. There’s no reason to think that in the short term, the next decades, that that is going to change. Warming environment, more moisture, higher temperatures, more evaporation after snowmelt — no reason to think that this won’t continue.

Wildfire is a natural part of the boreal environment. The environment is evolved to take advantage of it. However, all wildfire is not created equal. It’s clear that some wildfires are burning much hotter than they used to. You know, spruce trees can’t take advantage of wildfire to reproduce if their seed cones are turned to ash. So, yes, fire is part of the environment, but we are clearly getting more superhot fires that are just incinerating everything and basically sterilizing the environment, and that is a change. So yes, wildfires are part of the system, but these superhot wildfires — there’s clearly more of these now. All wildfires are not created equal in the boreal north.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.

  • Matt Stiles
    Matt Stiles

    Senior Data Visualization Reporter

    Matt Stiles is the senior data visualization reporter for Grid.

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Wildfire