Alaska documents record low in acres burned by early-season wildfires

A year after the worst early wildfire seasons since at least the 1960s, Alaska is having a completely different experience this year.

By Teigan Akagi, Alaska Beacon - June 29, 2023
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A U.S. Forest Service fire danger sign north along the highway just north of Seward is seen as light rain was falling on Sunday, June 25. The sign says fire danger in the region, dominated by the Chugach National Forest, is moderate. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A year after the worst early wildfire seasons since at least the 1960s, Alaska is having a completely different experience this year.

Through Monday, Alaska wildfires reached just over 1,300 acres, in contrast with more than 1 million acres at a similar point last year. This year’s total is the lowest during the time period with detailed records, which stretch back 31 years.

According to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, this year there has been a cool spring, which results in a late snowmelt. The phenomena of late snowmelt typically results in the late start of wildfire season.

As of now, the snow has melted, yet there is hardly a presence of wildfires. “Of course, we need the ground to dry and the fuel to dry before we can get fire,” said Thoman, whose center is part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The late start of the wildfire season is due to the various weather conditions and patterns seen across Alaska: There is low pressure across the Bering Sea, cool air and very little thunderstorm activity. Thoman especially noted that the Interior, where most Alaska wildfires occur, has not experienced any warm and dry periods after thunderstorms.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, which tracks wildfires, has reported that there have been a total of 129 wildfires statewide and 1,314 acres burned. Of those wildfires, 110 have been reported to be started by human causes and 19 have been reported to have started by lighting.

“The typical acres burned at this point in the season, June 26, is about 175,000 acres, and last year was over 1.2 million acres at this point,” said Thoman.

(Graphic provided by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy)
Graphic provided by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

“If we get into the weather pattern, where we have lighting and then several days of warm, dry weather, then things could take off in a hurry. At least, in the sense that we’ve had almost nothing.”

– Rick Thoman, climate specialist

As the month comes to a close, the critical marker in the wildfire season, the second week of July, approaches. After that week, energy and heat from the sun declines. Thoman explained that while wildfires can still occur, they mostly only come from fires that have already been burning since before the critical point.

However, this does not mean that Alaska is in the clear when it comes to the wildfire season.

“The main thing that I would stress, especially in the Interior, where many places haven’t had a lot of rain, unlike the coast: If we get into the weather pattern, where we have lighting and then several days of warm, dry weather, then things could take off in a hurry. At least, in the sense that we’ve had almost nothing. At this point, it’s unlikely to be a really big season, but there is still time. We are not out of the woods by any means but the clock is definitely ticking,” said Thoman.

When it comes to the rest of the wildfire season, Thoman said: “If we don’t see a significant change in the weather pattern that would change the character for the season, then we aren’t going to see much change with the wildfires.”

According to Thoman, with the warming summer temperatures and the earlier melting of the winter snow, we can expect the Alaskan wildfire season will expand in the years to come. Additionally, “the frequency of the million-acre wildfire seasons has dramatically increased in the past 25 years and we expect that trend to continue,” said Thoman.


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