Alaska’s fire season shaping up to be a low year

Graphic showing 2019-2020 comparisons for Duff Moisture Content.
This graphic shows a comparison between Duff Moisture Content (DMC) levels on July 7 in 2019 and 2020. The DMC represents the moisture content of loosely compacted, decomposing organic matter, which determines resistance to control. This layer is sensitive to temperature, rainfall amount and relative humidity. Blue indicates wetter conditions while red indicates drier conditions.

Alaska is now past its historical peak of the wildland fire season and current and forecasted conditions are pointing to a below-normal fire season for the state, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center’s Predictive Services desk.

“It doesn’t mean that fire season is over. It just means we would need a longer warming period to get the fuels back to a more serious burnable condition.”

Chris Moore, fire behavior analyst at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC)

Significant rainfall in many parts of the state during the last half of June moderated fire activity and saturated fuel layers, Moore said. As a result, many of the more than 80 active wildfires around the state are simply smoldering or no longer showing activity. 

Graphic comparing drought code for 2019-2020.
This graphic shows a comparison between the Drought Code (DC) levels on July 7 in 2019 and 2020. The DC represents the deep layer of compacted organic matter, which determines resistance to extinguishment. It indicates seasonal drought and smoldering fires in deep duff or large logs. The blue indicates wetter conditions while red indicates drier conditions.

“Right now, we don’t have the fuels to support a lot of fire growth on the ground and we would need at least a week, maybe 10 days or more, of warming and drying to put a lot of areas in the state into having the duff  dry enough to start supporting more intense fire behavior that has been isolated this year,” Moore said. Duff is the partially decomposed organic material found beneath the surface that can increase fire intensity when conditions are dry enough. 

Comparison of buildup index between 2019-2020.
This graphic shows a comparison between the Buildup Index (BUI) on July 7 in 2019 and 2020. The BUI is a combination of DMC and DC and is used as a measure of seasonal severity. The blue shows the most moisture with red indicating drier conditions.

That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon, said Heidi Strader, a meteorologist with AICC Predictive Services. The current long-range forecast doesn’t indicate any extended period of hot, dry weather. Coupled with increasingly shorter daylight hours, this doesn’t support significant fire growth on fires that are currently smoldering in Alaska. 

“Overall, it’s looking like a very low fire year … We could get a surge later in the season, but from this point forward, our days are getting shorter fairly quickly. The sun isn’t as high in the sky, so our burning period becomes quite a bit less.”

Heidi strader, AICC meteorologist

As of Wednesday, there had been 299 wildfires reported this season that had burn an estimated 173,743 acres, according to AICC statistics. Based on historical data, the chances of reaching the 500,000 mark is less than 20%, Strader said. In a typical fire season, Alaska burns about 650,000 acres.

Alaska monthly fire potential outlook for July 2020.
Alaska monthly fire potential outlook for July 2020. Click on graphic for outlook posted on the AICC website.

The northeastern and northwestern parts of the state are the remaining holdouts for cooler, wetter weather. The Yukon Flats and the Noatak River Valley still have drier conditions and the highest chance of fire activity. However, only three fires are currently staffed with firefighting personnel in Alaska. On Thursday, there were 25 people still working on the Isom Creek Fire 84 miles north of Fairbanks and the Midnight Sun Hotshots mobilized Wednesday to protect a Native allotment near the Sheenjek River Fire burning 46 miles north of Fort Yukon. Other Alaska crews were doing project work such as removing hazardous vegetation near communities while remaining in state to respond to fires if needed.

July 10 marks the first evaluation date for Alaska’s fire season. On Thursday, representatives from state, tribal and federal land and wildland fire management agencies that comprise the Alaska Wildland Fire Coordinating Group agreed to convert some Modified initial response areas to Limited initial response based on current weather conditions and long-range forecasts, as well as evaluation of vegetation and soil moisture levels. Most fires in Limited areas do not pose a threat to any values at risk and are allowed to function in their normal ecological role. Other Modified areas have later evaluation dates. 

The Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan outlines an interagency approach for prioritizing response to Alaska wildfires. There are four management option levels for lands in Alaska – Critical, Full, Modified and Limited – in the plan, which guides response to and suppression of wildfires in the state. Flexibility built into the plan allows for responses tailored to accommodate limited resource availability and unforeseen risks and conditions and, in some cases, non-standard strategies will be employed in order to mitigate those risks. 

Map of Fire Management Options for Alaska.
Map of Fire Management Options for Alaska. Click on graphic for PDF version of map.

Options are selected by jurisdictional agencies, which have land and resource management responsibility for a specific geographical or functional area. The protection levels are based upon legal mandates, policies, regulations, resource management objectives, and local conditions, including but not limited to population density, fire occurrence, environmental factors, and identified values. Management options are assigned on a landscape scale and apply across jurisdictional boundaries. Ideally, those boundaries are readily identifiable from both the air and ground, are based on fuel types, access, topographic features, natural barriers and fire regimes. Management option designations are intended to be flexible to respond to changes in objectives, fire conditions, land-use patterns, resource information, and technologies. Jurisdictional agencies are responsible for updating and reviewing management option and site designations annually. Management options may only be changed with the approval of all affected jurisdictional agencies.

See the Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan for more information about wildland fire management in Alaska.

Contact Alaska Division of Forestry Statewide Public Information Officer Tim Mowry at (907)356-5512 or tim.mowry@alaska.gov or BLM Alaska Fire Service Public Affairs Specialist Beth Ipsen at (907)356-5510 or eipsen@blm.gov for more information.

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About BLM Alaska Fire Service

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) located at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, provides wildland fire suppression services for over 244 million acres of Department of the Interior and Native Corporation Lands in Alaska. In addition, AFS has other statewide responsibilities that include: interpretation of fire management policy; oversight of the BLM Alaska Aviation program; fuels management projects; and operating and maintaining advanced communication and computer systems such as the Alaska Lightning Detection System. AFS also maintains a National Incident Support Cache with a $10 million inventory. The Alaska Fire Service provides wildland fire suppression services for America’s “Last Frontier” on an interagency basis with the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Military in Alaska.

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