Will heavy snow cover dampen Alaska’s fire season? Experts say don’t count on it.

smoke over tundra
The Apoon Pass fire, seen from the air on June 11, is the second-largest tundra fire on record in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Vegetation changes driven by climate warming have made the tundra more flammable, experts say. (Ryan McPherson/BLM Alaska Fire Service)

After some record-breaking winter snowfall, Alaska is now approaching the start of summer wildfire season. Much of the state still has 2 to 5 feet of snow blanketing the ground, but experts say that won’t necessarily deliver a calm fire season.

Alison York, coordinator for the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, said while a heavy snowpack may push back the start to the season, it doesn’t have any impact on how intense fires will be.

“None whatsoever,” she said. “There is absolutely zero relationship between snowpack, certainly at the statewide level, and subsequent fire season severity.”

York said that’s because the key fuel that burns in Alaska wildfires is plant debris called “duff.” And duff doesn’t retain moisture from snow. 

“The debris that falls from the forest and also the moss and lichen and the little surface plants  … when they die they don’t decompose very readily because the soils are so cold,” York said. “That stuff burns. And it can dry really, really quickly.”

As climate change has progressed in recent decades, snowmelt tends to happen earlier and fall snowfall tends to come later. That means Alaska’s fire season is growing longer

“I think when we really started seeing some significant changes was around the early to mid 2000s. And every year we’ve been really challenged,” said Norm McDonald, Chief of Fire and Aviation for the state Division of Forestry & Fire Protection.

2004 remains the worst fire season on record in Alaska, with more than 6.6 million acres — an area the size of Vermont — burned. Last year was the seventh worst, with 3.1 million acres burned in just a six-week period.

Fires are also burning in more parts of the state. 

“It’s moving out into locations that maybe saw a little fire in the past, but now are seeing really a significant fire load,” York said. “For instance, what happened in Southwest Alaska last summer. And I think there’s always been a fire history on the Kenai Peninsula, but it seems like that’s increasing.”

Early last summer, Southwest Alaska saw its two largest ever tundra fires, the East Fork Fire and Apoon Pass Fire. This year the Bureau of Land Management again forecasted high early-season fire risk in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta because of low snowpack.

As demand for firefighters nationwide increases, hiring is a challenge. Alaska’s fire season is somewhat earlier than states in the western Lower 48, which can help with availability, but fire seasons everywhere are growing and overlapping.

“That’s one of the challenges that we’re all facing,” said McDonald. “With more fires on the landscape, more need for resources, it’s a limited pool. So trying to prioritize where those resources go, what the priority fires are in the country is a challenge.”

Both the Division of Forestry & Fire Protection and the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service have a few hundred firefighters and support staff. If the season gets especially intense, they may call on emergency firefighters, many of whom come from rural communities. There’s also the option to request more staff from the Lower 48 or even Canada.

“Every year we struggle to find people to fill some of our ranks,” said Beth Ipsen, spokesperson for Alaska Fire Service. She said a retention incentive paid through the 2021 federal infrastructure bill is helping with staffing, but the Fire Service is still hiring for support staff. 

BLM, the state Division of Forestry & Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service work together every year to tackle fires all over Alaska. Ipsen said they’re finishing up training and expect to have the first crews ready to go this week. 

Ipsen said an increased fire risk requires new strategies.

“Fire management is evolving. We’ve actually added additional people to concentrate on what we call fuels management, and helping communities become resistant to wildfires.”

Ipsen said before fire season is in full swing it’s important for homeowners to clear dead vegetation away from their properties, clean out gutters and move firewood stacks away from buildings to reduce the risk of damage and make it safer and easier for firefighters to battle a potential blaze.

“Just because we see a lot of snow on the ground now, that doesn’t impact the overall fire season. And that’s why it is so important for people to check their property, to take those steps.”

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavitha here.

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