Alaska sees a quiet start to wildfire season

Published: Jun. 9, 2023 at 10:45 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A slow start to Alaska’s wildfire season has allowed the state to send resources to Canada to assist. Alaska has only three staffed forest fires statewide, consisting of a total of 22 firefighters. All three of these teams should be returning home in the next couple of days, according to Beth Ipsen, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Land Management.

Ipsen said at the moment, only about 650 acres have burned as a result of fires, compared to the 200,000 acres that had already burnt during this time last year. She said the drier and wet conditions from spring are responsible for the quiet season.

Fire danger is highly variable in Alaska, but some trends have become noticeable with climate change. Traditionally, the wildfire season would start in May, but nowadays it starts in April, according to Jennifer Schmidt, an associate professor of Natural Resource Management and Policy at the University of Anchorage Alaska.

The early spring fires munch off of the dry grass that is exposed once the snow begins to melt. Once grass begins to green up, other vegetation like spruce trees becomes the primary fuel, with the fire season often sticking around until August.

However, a quiet season can quickly ramp up if warmer and drier temperatures move in. Overall, certain areas of the state, like Anchorage and surrounding communities, have become more vulnerable to outbreaks. Since the 1970s, Schmidt said, more residents have started moving into areas of the municipality that have more flammable vegetation nearby, creating a wildland-urban interface.

“The fire danger in Anchorage I would say has been increasing partially due to climate change, you’re getting hotter summers, drier summers. You also have residents who are expanding,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt recommends that households have a wildfire safety plan in place. In addition to speaking with neighbors about what their community should do in case of a fire.

“The whole process of helping reduce wildlife risk is working with residents from the bottom-up,” Schmidt said. “Having people think about how do I make my home more resistant to wildfire? So, you know fire wise. How can I get out safely? That’s packing a to-go bag, having all of that together. If you have pets, knowing what to do with the pets. And how do I get out?”