El Nino predicted for summer could bring more fires

Megan Edge

It is not uncommon for coastal communities to experience cloudy weather during summer months, and raging wildfires are far from unusual, but this summer there could be more of both if Alaska sees the El Nino forecast Thursday by the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

El Nino is caused by a "significant increase in water temperature in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, which is the area between the dateline and Ecuador," according to the National Weather Service. And currently the temperature trend in the vast Pacific Ocean, along the equator, is suspected to be the cause of weather patterns that could fuel more fires, warmer temperatures or cloudy weather by midsummer.

"One of the big things that happens during a serious fire year is you will get low pressure systems that transport moisture to the inland (and) Southcentral that can fuel thunderstorms," said Rick Thoman, the director of Climate Science and Services for Alaska. "And it could end up being a cloudy summer because there is that moisture." He added that thunder and lightning is a typical wildfire culprit.

But Norm McDonald, a fire management officer with the Division of Forestry, said only 10 percent of forest fires are actually started by Mother Nature; the remaining 90 percent are caused by humans.

And despite the El Nino predictions, fire officials across the Last Frontier aren't abnormally concerned. Representatives from the Alaska Fire Service and Alaska Division of Forestry say they are preparing for fire season like any other year because predictions aren't always correct.

"Sometimes when they tell us one thing the opposite happens," said Alaska Fire Service's Public Affairs Officer Mel Slater. "Fire seasons are different from year to year, and indicators won't tell you what is going to happen. So we prepare for fighting fires no matter what the cause may be."

Already this year 72 fires have ignited statewide and as of Thursday had burned 145.2 acres. A decade ago, in one of the worst years on record, 6.59 million acres went up in flames statewide. According to Thoman, the 2004 El Nino year was one "we all want to forget."

The last El Nino was in 2009; the Climate Prediction Center claims there is a 65 percent chance of an El Nino developing during summer months.

Reach Megan Edge at megan@alaskadispatch.com.