There will be more tundra fires in Alaska as the climate continues to warm

smoke billows from the tundra
Federal fire officials determined that the East Fork Fire was no longer a threat to lower Yukon River villages as of June 25, 2022. (Bureau of Land Management)

In June, the largest tundra fire the region has ever seen ripped through the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Life is now going back to normal for residents who live near the site of the fire, but people should expect more frequent tundra fires in coming years as the climate continues to change.

Elder Sophie Beans stands in her wooden house near the banks of the Andreafsky River. It’s lush and green outside, but just a few miles away the earth is scorched.

“See right here is our camp, and it burned,” Beans said, gesturing to the wall and a vintage photo of her cabin, nestled into a spruce grove about five miles upriver from her main home.

Those spruce trees burned down and the surrounding tundra is black after a massive fire ripped through about two months ago. At 166,587 acres, the East Fork Fire was the largest tundra fire the region has ever seen.

Climate scientist Rick Thoman said that fires like this one were once rare. Now, he said, they are likely to become far more common as the earth continues to warm.

“The idea that there’s going to be more fire on the tundra, I think, is a done deal. After decades of warmer springs and summers there’s just more to burn,” he said. “There’s going to be more land burned. That’s a sure thing.”

Thoman said that this summer has seen the most acreage burned in the Y-K Delta region. And most of the region’s wildfires have occurred in the past seven years.

The cause of most of the fires has been lightning. And lightning has become much more common in the Y-K Delta over recent years. Thoman said that’s because more heat emanating from a warmer Bering Sea causes more moisture, which in turn causes more frequent thunderstorms. When the lightning from those storms strikes the tundra, which is now usually drier from less snowmelt and more heat, fire can spread fast and far.

Elders along the Yukon River also report thicker and denser vegetation over recent years, which can serve as fuel for fires. Like the spruce trees that surrounded Beans’ cabin.

Beans said that the fire destroyed her favorite blackberry patch nearby.

The other leftover signs of the fire in St. Mary’s are the torn up tundra trenches encircling the city, scorched earth and leftover fire retardant.

Besides that, life has largely gone back to normal in St. Mary’s. The vulnerable residents who evacuated to Bethel or Anchorage have all returned and the nearly 200 firefighters have long gone home.

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