Alaska News

Alaska’s fire agencies are preparing for more starts during an already historic wildfire season

East Fork backing fire

The amount of acreage burned by wildland fires in Alaska hit 1 million on June 15, the earliest in decades if not history.

Blazes that prompted evacuations in some Southwest villages scorched huge swaths of tundra in a dangerously dry, warm summer that’s just getting started.

Now, with high temperatures forecast for the week ahead, the state’s multi-agency fire bosses are bringing in additional fire crews and activating a public information line to prepare for what could be an uptick in already historic fire activity.

“We’re just trying to get staff in position because we anticipate what may happen with the high pressure moving in over the state, the drought conditions that have persisted through many areas of the state,” said Sam Harrel, a Fairbanks-based Division of Forestry public information officer. “We need to be prepared for what happens because it takes a long time for resources to make it to Alaska. It’s a little easier for Oregon to go to California to help fight fire than it is for Oregon to go to Alaska.”

A 3,000-acre fire about 6 1/2 miles northwest of the city of Anderson in the Denali Borough was prompting broad evacuation notices Friday and into Saturday afternoon, according to Forestry updates.

Warming conditions prompted the spread of the Clear Fire toward the south, officials said. The lightning-sparked fire started on Tuesday.

Fire managers put approximately 27 cabins along the Teklanika River within about 2 miles of the fire in “go” status, meaning people there should leave immediately, according to Clear Fire public information officer Bud Sexton.

By 2:30 p.m. Saturday, around 100 people in residences within the Anderson, Kobe Ag and Quota subdivisions — not including the city of Anderson — had also been told to evacuate immediately after hot, dry conditions continued into the weekend, pushing the fire closer.

The 34 cabins along the Teklanika about 2 to 5 miles from the fire were in “set” status, meaning they should prepare a bag of important items in case evacuation became necessary.

“There’s a lot of fire activity going on across Alaska right now,” Sexton said. “And resources are stretched. And so we just encourage everyone to have safe practices.”

As of Saturday afternoon, people in the city of Anderson, Clear and the Clear Space Force Station were in “ready” status and advised to create defensible space around structures in case the fire moved closer.

Nearly half the state was considered abnormally dry as of late June, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Anchorage is “very likely” to have the warmest June on record, according to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

This is also expected to be the first June on record that Anchorage hits at least 60 degrees every day, Thoman said. Fairbanks is on track to tie the record for most days of 70 degrees or higher.

Earlier this week, fire and weather conditions prompted the state to shift to its second-highest firefighting preparedness level, meaning more resources will be allocated to Alaska, officials say.

Five 20-person firefighting crews from the Lower 48 were expected to arrive in Alaska on Sunday, in addition to 200 other out-of-state firefighters already on the ground, Harrel said. Additional fire management teams are also en route.

[As climate change reshapes Alaska’s landscapes, tundra fires are getting worse]

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center also said Friday that it was activating a joint wildland fire information center for the public based at the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service building on Fort Wainwright. That last happened in 2019 and occurs “when fire officials determine that the number and complexity of wildland fires burning across the state warrants an additional public information presence.” The center can be reached at 907-356-5511.

As of Friday, 331 wildfires — 171 of them human-caused — had burned more than 1.2 million acres across the state, with nine new fires reported on Thursday as part of 139 active fires burning in total, according to an update.

“As conditions over the next two days continue to become hotter and drier with the forecasted weather pattern, residents may see an increase in fire activity and smoke,” state fire officials warned. “With the weekend approaching, please recreate responsibly and practice fire safety in all of your adventures.”

A smoke outlook issued Friday warned of periods of unhealthy air near Fairbanks; moderate air quality for Anchorage and areas around the Kenai Peninsula into the Susitna Valley; and poor air quality around villages near Iliamna Lake and the upper Alaska Peninsula.

The weather pattern setting up this weekend is a “classic pattern for fire in Alaska,” Thoman said Friday. Up until early this week, much of the acreage scorched by fire was in Southwest Alaska, which is unusual. But now a high pressure system without much chance for rain is building after days of lightning strikes in the Interior, which is the part of the state where large fires normally occur.

During big fire years such as 2004 and 2015, fires can grow across “just tremendous areas in short periods of time” in late June and early July, he said: “That doesn’t guarantee that will happen this year, but to be honest with you, it’s hard to see what keeps it down for the next week.”

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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