Alaska is on pace for a historic fire season, spurred on by warm temperatures, a diminished snowpack, and an apparent uptick in lightning strikes. Fires have ripped through 2 million acres so far this year, roughly 10 times the total area burned in all of 2021.
“While this doesn’t guarantee a record fire season this year, it does illustrate how dry conditions are across the state,” the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service said in a statement. “It’s also an indicator of how busy firefighters have been so far this season with several months still left to go.”
Alaska’s snowpack thawed quickly in the spring heat — the state had its third-warmest and fourth-driest May on record — helping give rise to a large number of wildfires. “This year has been an unusually active fire season in the region, with abnormally warm and dry conditions that led to more than 300 wildfires igniting in recent weeks,” NOAA said in a statement. “Many of these were sparked by nearly 5,000 lightning strikes from thunderstorms that moved across south-central and southwestern Alaska in early June.”
June saw a record number of wildfires in Alaska, including the East Fork Fire, near the Yukon Delta, which has burned more than 250,000 acres, and the Lime Complex Fire, in the southwest Alaska, which has burned more than 600,000 acres. The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings for much of Alaska’s interior and warned that people with respiratory conditions should stay indoors.
The state is currently on track to exceed the total acreage burned in the record 2004 fire season, when more than 6 million acres went up in flames. Alaska wildfires have grown larger and more severe over time, with million-acre fires burning more than twice as often as they did before 1990.
“Wildfire is part of the natural ecosystem in the Boreal north, but the fires we’re getting now are not the same as the fires that were burning 150 years ago,” University of Alaska Fairbanks climate specialist Rick Thoman wrote in The Conversation. “More fuel, more lightning strikes, higher temperatures, lower humidity — they combine to fuel fires that burn hotter and burn deeper into the ground, so rather than just scorching the trees and burning the undergrowth, they’re consuming everything, and you’re left with this moonscape of ash.”