Rural Alaska

Alaska wildfires trigger air quality warnings as burned acreage already surpasses seasonal average

A series of fires burning in Southwest and Central Alaska triggered air quality warnings across a broad area of the state as officials warned that critical fire conditions now exist across many portions of Alaska.

Fires burning in Southwest and Western Alaska increased in size more than 150 square miles each day this week, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. So far this year, 253 fires have burned an estimated 835,369 acres, or over 1,300 square miles, surpassing the 500,000 acres burned during a typical year based on the median value of data from the 2012–21 fire seasons.

Alaska’s fire season around the solstice is driven by long, warm days that dry out the boreal duff layer that can easily be ignited by lightning, fire officials say. Fire on the Southwest Alaska tundra isn’t unheard of, but as climate change continues to reshape the state’s environment, tundra fires are becoming more frequent and more severe.

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

Smoke from numerous fires on Tuesday triggered an air quality advisory from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation through Thursday afternoon for the Southwest, Central and Eastern Interior regions. The advisories warned of air quality that could reach very unhealthy levels depending on wind flow and proximity to fires. Smoke from the fires previously led to hazy skies and poor air quality in Southcentral before the wind shifted.

Meanwhile, favorable winds and weather continued to push the state’s biggest fire away from several villages on the Yukon River.

The East Fork Fire, the biggest fire in Alaska at nearly 141,200 acres by Wednesday, was still active but a shift in wind direction and cooler weather allowed crews to fight the fire directly at the northeast edge and strengthen fire lines aimed at reducing its spread, according to an update from the Alaska Incident Management Team. The fire, and another smaller one, had threatened several communities and triggered voluntary evacuations including St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point and Mountain Village before favorable wind conditions started this week.

Much of the smoke blanketing vast parts of the state is coming from the 40,000-acre Hog Butte Fire along the North Fork of the Kuskokwim River about 30 miles southwest of Lake Minchumina, along with several fires in Southwest Alaska, according to the BLM Alaska Fire Service.

As of Wednesday, there were more than 90 active fires burning across more than 900,000 acres (1,400 square miles), according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

A new team that includes wildfire specialists from Alaska and the Lower 48 will assume command Thursday of the Southwest fires burning across a 40 million acre region, according to the Division of Forestry.

The team will help support crews “defending villages, lodges, cabins, native allotments, mining infrastructure and other values at risk,” the agency said in an update Wednesday afternoon. In addition to mobilizing resources from the Lower 48 and Canada to assist suppression efforts, this interagency effort will establish and maintain supply chains, remote fueling depots for aviation assets, and will help identify additional cabins, lodges and other values at risk threatened by these remote interior lightning caused wildfires.

Crews on the ground are protecting infrastructure and villages from several fires around Dillingham, Red Devil, Sleetmute, Georgetown, Crooked Creek and the King Salmon area, the update said.