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Surrounded by snow, tundra fire burns in northwestern Alaska

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
    | Arctic
  • Updated: April 21, 2017
  • Published April 21, 2017

Despite lingering snow, cool temperatures and the many weeks to go before the start of summer, a 1,900-acre swath of tundra is burning in northwestern Alaska, federal officials report.

The fire is smoldering in the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska Fire Service said in a statement. Called the Zane Hills fire, it was discovered Tuesday, spotted from the air by a team of firefighters flying to Noorvik to train in preparation for this year's wildfire season, the BLM said.

Because it is surrounded by snow, the fire is not expected to spread, the BLM said. But it is a reminder that the fire season starts well before summer, even in the northern Alaska tundra, the agency said.

"We understand that this fire isn't going very far at this time of year, but one of these days these fires are going to get much larger," Doug Alexander, a regional fire management coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in the BLM statement.

The fire is being monitored and is not threatening any valuable resources, the BLM said.

Tim Mowry, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry, said tundra plants — like grasses in lower latitudes — can be vulnerable to fire even if the ground below is still frozen.

The Selawik fire appears to be one of those cases, he said.

"It is probably early, but if there's space exposed, the wind up there blows pretty hard," he said. "Anything that is exposed at this point is pretty freeze-dried."

The fire is believed to have been human-caused, the BLM said. Some snowmachine tracks were found in the area, so it is possible that a spark from the vehicle ignited the tundra, though an unattended campfire could also be at fault, the BLM said.

Tundra fires have become more common as the northern climate warms. They are typically sparked by lightning and are of concern to climate scientists because they can expose permafrost where carbon is sequestered.

The biggest known North Slope tundra fire, the 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire, burned about 400 square miles and released 2.1 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, according to a 2010 study.