Denali and Fairbanks-area fires disrupt tourists and communities in Alaska

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Smoke from the Riley Fire blankets mountain slopes near the main entrance of Denali National Park and Preserve on Monday evening. A plane enlisted in the firefighting effort is seen flying over the site. The fire-caused park closure has disrupted the busiest period of season at one of Alaska’s top tourist destinations. (Photo provided by National Park Service)

A wildfire has forced the closure of one of Alaska’s top tourist destinations and a set of fires have poured smoke into the state’s second-largest city.

The Riley Fire burning around the main entrance of Denali National Park and Preserve, which broke out over the weekend and was measured at 388 acres as of Tuesday, prompted the National Park Service to shut down visitor access there and evacuate about 150 employees.

The National Park Service on Sunday night closed the main entrance, resulting in abrupt changes to what had been shaping up as a normal busy season. The park remained closed Wednesday.

This is normally the peak visitor period for the park, with about 3,000 to 5,000 people coming through the main entrance each day, Ollig said. But that normal bustle is now significantly muted, with power outages in the hotels and commercial operations in the Nenana River stretch known as “Glitter Gulch” that is just outside the park entrance.

While the Riley Fire has proved a major disruption and is ranked by fire managers as the top priority in Alaska, in some ways it was predictable. That is based on the long-term forest cycle of growth, burning and regrowth, Ollig said. This fire broke out 100 years, almost to the day, after the last major fire in the park entrance area. Even last year, Denali officials were on alert for a repeat of the 1924 fire, and last year they encouraged communities around the park to take precautions.

“The boreal forest in this part of Alaska typically has a 100-year fire regime,” Ollig said, referring to regular forest cycles of growth and burns. Additionally, conditions were ripe for burning, he said. “The park, the past week or so, has been under the category of extreme fire danger. So it’s primed for something like this to flare up.”

spruce-killing beetle infestation, which has been tied by scientists to climate change, has spread to the Denali park entrance area. However, park officials do not see any evidence that those dead trees played a role in the Riley fire, Ollig said. The whole area was dry and thus prone to burning, he said.

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Smoke from a wildfire at the entrance area of Denali National Park hovers on Sunday on the hillsides behind the “Glitter Gulch” hotels and tourist businesses just outside the park. (Photo provided by National Park Service)

The cause of the Riley fire remains unknown, but an investigation is planned, Ollig said.

In more distant parts of the 6-million-acre park, access to visitors remains open. As of Tuesday, there were 50 climbers still on Denali, North America’s tallest peak, park officials said. So far, 924 others have completed climbs on the mountain this year, park officials said. And fly-in access to the western part of the park, away from the fires, is still available, Ollig said.

Fairbanks-area fires

The 160,000-acre McDonald Fire burning south of Fairbanks is the largest wildfire in the Fairbanks North Star Borough since 2004, when Alaska posted a record fire season with 6.6 million acres burned, said Rick Thoman, a scientist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment at Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“By Alaska standards, it’s not a super-big fire, but it’s very close to town,” Thoman said.

Smoke from that fire, plus that produced by a collection of wildfires north of Fairbanks called the Grapefruit Complex, has poured into Fairbanks and spurred air-quality advisories from the borough and state governments. Smoke was thickest over the weekend, Thoman said.

“Sunday was pretty horrible,” he said. “At its worst, it was reminiscent of 2004, and I don’t use that analogy lightly.”

As of Tuesday, a wide swath of Interior Alaska beyond Fairbanks and including the Denali National Park area was under an air-quality advisory issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Overall, 315 Alaska wildfires had burned about 460,000 acres as of Tuesday, according to state fire managers. Twenty-one fires currently have wildland firefighters assigned to staff them, according to fire managers.

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Alaska wildfires burned about 422,2000 acres in June, about twice the 1993-2023 median but not an extraordinary total compared to recent years. (Graph provided by Rick Thoman/Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy)

Of that acreage total, only about 6,000 burned before the start of June, Thoman said. The end-of-June total of about 422,220 acres was above the median for 1993 through 2023, though not extraordinarily high, he said.

Other fires of note are four that have broken out in the Noatak National Preserve in Northwest Alaska. Those fires, above the Arctic Circle, are burning in tundra and range from 9.3 acres to 8,534 acres in size.

Those fires are burning in areas that had “way above-average snowfall and a not-early snowmelt” prior to fire season, Thoman said. But the weather there was extremely dry in June, with temperatures above normal, he said.

Firefighters’ pay

The hundreds of wildland firefighters assigned to the staffed fires are from both Alaska and Lower 48 crews.

The Alaska firefighters are now beneficiaries of a pay increase that was included in the state budget that went into effect on Monday, the Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday. Increased pay is needed to address firefighter vacancies, a department statement said.

“What this pay increase will help us achieve is building back our Alaskan workforce. address workforce shortages,” Norm McDonald, deputy director of fire protection, said in the statement.

The amount of pay increase was not disclosed, but the new operating budget includes $29.7 million for the department’s fire suppression preparedness duties, compared with $25.9 million for the fiscal year just ended.

Some U.S. senators, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are seeking to extend a 2021 pay hike for U.S. Forest Service firefighters.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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