Alaska wildfires in June break records, fueled by hot, dry weather

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska – A record number of acres were burned this month in Alaska, forcing indigenous people from their homes, damaging air quality and reducing firefighting resources.

Officials reported last weekend that more than 1 million acres have already been on fire, the earliest recorded date that the state has reached that milestone. The abnormally hot and dry weather – intensified by human-caused climate change – has helped fuel more than 300 wildfires in recent weeks. More than 100 people are still burning, including the East Fork fire, which erupted Charred on over 165,000 acres It is now ranked as the fifth largest fire in the state’s tundra.

The fires reflect some of the shifts the state is undergoing in the face of climate change, with longer growing seasons causing denser tundra vegetation allowing wildfires to spread in recent years. More than 2.5 acres were burned from 2001 to 2020 compared to the previous two decades, according to the International Arctic Research Center.

Forecasts predict that more exceptional heat will swell above the case Next week, which could lead to a new flare-up.

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The Air Quality Consultant is now covering large parts of Alaska’s interior due to wildfire smoke. On Wednesday, smoke pollution in Fairbanks rose to Orange and red icon levels are unhealthy.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation warned that “air quality can be very harmful depending on wind flow and drainage through mountain passes.”

Massive tundra fires force residents to flee, stress responders

Many fires broke out in remote areas. Earlier this month, a fire threatened the original village of St. Mary’s of 600 people, which is located near the mouth of the Yukon River and can only be reached by boat or plane. So as I approached the city, officials decided to give vulnerable residents the option to evacuate.

“We called the elderly,” said D.D. Ivanov, director of the local school district, in an interview. “And if they wanted to go, they went.”

About 180 people, including some with respiratory problems, decided to leave St Mary’s and the nearby village, Petkas Point. Domestic airlines sent planes to St. Mary’s Airport and carried them one by one; Ivanov said she counted eight Cessna planes on the runway.

While some Fires threatened communities and infrastructure such as the East Fork Fire, until recently bushfire managers had enough crew and equipment to respond aggressively.

Norm MacDonald, the state’s wildfire official, said that as conditions continue to be hot and dry and lightning strikes cause more fires across the state, fire crews are increasing.

Two planes of firefighters have already flown from Lower 48 to Alaska, and another plane is on its way. But MacDonald said managers are also struggling to keep up with the fires raging in other areas of the country, including the Southwest, and nationwide, they are having a hard time recruiting prairie firefighters.

“Nationally, we are challenged by a lack of resources — and not just Alaska,” MacDonald said. “It’s just a difficult and difficult task.”

Ivanov, who helped coordinate the village’s response, said in St. Mary’s that residents who remained in town thanked the firefighters by delivering them fried bread and home meals.

She said the fire caused by the lightning never broke through the main containment line, and nearly all of the evacuees went home.

But residents, who depend on fish and harvesting wildlife to feed their families, now have to contend with the effects of the fire: Ivanov said the tundra where they pick berries have burned, and some community members are questioning how the impact of fire retardants falling from planes is. Fish and moose.

Meanwhile, managers have shut down salmon harvests in the Yukon River amid a string of poor fish returns.

Mary’s residents are increasingly talking about the threats posed by global warming — even as they banded together to beat bushfires, Ivanov said.

“It’s much warmer and drier, even kids notice the changes,” he said He said. “It’s definitely not what it used to be.”

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Fires in their historical context

According to Rick Thoman, a climate expert with the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center, the Alaskan wildfire season in 2022 has already proven historic.

Only 11 times since 1990 has Alaska seen one million acres of wilderness burn in one year, a standard the current season has already surpassed with the fire season lasting more than a month.

Much of the land burned so far is located in the southwest of the state, where the extensive fires spread in a sparsely populated natural area. Data from the Bureau of Land Management shows that more than 820,000 acres have been burned there, exceeding seasonal totals for every year except 2015.

An unusual combination of weather conditions combined to induce widespread fire activity. The lower-than-normal ice mass in spring and warm temperatures in March confirmed earlier snowmelt, Thomann said in an email. Then, for the remainder of spring, lower-than-average rainfall and higher-than-average temperatures helped fan the raging fires.

The unusual heat and early thaw originated in an area likely to face the threat of wildfires due to climate change. Thoman said tribal elders in southwestern Alaska described longer, warmer growing seasons increasingly conducive to brush growth, resulting in unprecedented thickening among the tundra plants that could catch fire.

As wildfires continue to rage, the unusual heat will spread across much of the state in the next week.

A powerful dome of high pressure extending from the North Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Sea will cause temperatures to rise. The heat will be most intense in the southeast of the state, where the center of the high pressure dome is likely to be located.

“Temperatures will rise from late this weekend through the middle of next week across the northern and central inner channels,” Juneau Weather Service wrote in a special bulletin. “Some temperature records could drop…With about 18 hours of daylight per day, it would be difficult to cool homes in the evening.”

Hyder City, a community located in the Alaska region, is expected to see four consecutive days with the temperature rising above 90 degrees. This is exceptional – only 13 days have seen them reach very high temperatures.

The unusual heat will envelop a large part of the state, and will be accompanied by almost no precipitation. In Alaska’s interior, including Fairbanks, there are concerns that a period of dry warmth may be ideal for continued growth of wildfires.

Alaska’s interior is currently experiencing record-low rainfall. As of June 18, Fairbanks Hasn’t seen any measurable rain in 30 daysAn unprecedented achievement for this time of year.

middle of the hot and dry conditionsForecasters are concerned that widespread thunderstorms over the past week may have triggered a number of wildfires. While many of these fires are probably too small to be detected at the moment, hot weather in the future could lead to rapid growth.

Robert Bianco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Fairbanks office, fears the fire season will “explode” once the heat arrives. This will only increase the tally of an already record-breaking season.

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