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Wildfire experts forecast higher-than-normal fire danger in Southwest Alaska

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Wildfire experts forecast higher-than-normal fire danger in Southwest Alaska

Mar 17, 2023 | 7:22 pm ET
By James Brooks
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Wildfire experts forecast higher-than-normal fire danger in Southwest Alaska
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Firefighters from the Gannett Glacier Type 2 Initial Attack Crew conduct defensive burning operations from a river near Lime Village in July 2022. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Quimby, Alaska Incident Management Team)

Southwest Alaska has a higher-than-normal risk of wildfires this spring, according to a preseason fire forecast published by state and federal experts.

The annual early-season forecast shows normal fire danger across most of the state, except in Southwest Alaska, where less snow has fallen than normal. Winter snowfall totals are strongly correlated with fire danger in the spring and early summer.

“Much like last season, the low snowpack in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta may lead to increased potential for a busier early fire season there, with human starts the most likely source of new ignitions,” said the report published by the Alaska Division of Forestry and the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. 

“However, early-season lightning may lead to ignitions in more remote areas of the far west, creating more challenging fire management considerations during the time of year that resources are still preparing,” the report said.

It’s a situation similar to what happened at the start of 2022, Alaska’s seventh-worst wildfire season since 1950. 

Last year, low-snow conditions allowed fires to spread across Southwest Alaska. Those fires included the two largest tundra fires ever recorded in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

The preseason forecast is a good indicator of risk through June; by July, the winter snowpack has melted and summer conditions will determine fire risk.

“It does look like a potential busy early season out on the Y-K Delta due to low snowpack,” said fire weather program manager Heidi Strader in a prepared statement announcing the forecast. “Keep in mind that we have few indicators to tell us how mid-summer will be at this point. For some of the more populated corridors around South Central and parts of the Interior, it’s more about fuels, wind events, and human activity.” 

Rick Thoman, a climate specialist who studies Alaska fire seasons, noted that low snow was only one factor in last year’s unusual Southwest Alaska fire season.

The region also had a warm, dry spring and an unusual spate of thunderstorms that dropped lightning onto the dry tundra and sparked wildfires.

“All of those pieces have to come together,” he said.

“The chances of those coming together again are not high,” he said, but since 2015, a change in long-term trends makes them more common than they used to be.