Snowmachines can spark tundra wildfires during spring thaw

Snowmachiners and off-highway vehicle drivers are encouraged to use caution and spread awareness about the dry conditions in Southwest Alaska.

Did you know that snowmobiles have unintentionally sparked spring wildfires in Alaska? The record setting 10,302 acre Kwethluk Fire in the the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta was unintentionally sparked last April. Two snowmachiners were traveling across exposed tundra when the ignition occurred and the fire quickly grew out of control. Thankfully the snowmachiners immediately reported the fire to dispatch (800-237-3633 or 911) so that aerial observation could begin. Over the next two weeks the wildfire grew as wind blew sparks that were able to burn more dry tundra across sections of frozen creeks and across snow covered areas. We encourage you to spread awareness with people you know as the seasonal outlook for 2023 predicts increased wildfire activity again around Bethel, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and anywhere in Alaska with lower snowfall or rapid spring snowpack melt.

  • Snowmobiles can cause - or catch on fire.
  • Spring tundra fires burn surface fuels and send sparks across frozen waterways.
  • Wind driven Kwethluk Fire in April 2022
  • Record setting 10,302 acres for the April 2022 Kwethluk Fire
  • Picture of snowmobile on fire.

There are a variety of ways overland machines and off-highway vehicles (OHVs) can spark wildfires. Exhaust temperatures can reach temperatures of 1,000+ degrees. An old Alaskan bush-pilot once noted “oil on hot metal will catch fire faster than a spray of gasoline.” Vehicles and equipment can shoot sparks from their exhaust, particularly vehicles that haven’t received regular maintenance. A major snow machine manufacturer recalled 2021-2013 models were recalled due to the increased risk of electrostatic discharge (ESD) inside the fuel tank. After extended storage on some vehicles, degraded fuel can pose a fire threat. Here are some safety measures to keep in mind while out traveling overland in Alaska:

  • Off-highway vehicles should have a spark arrester. 
  • Avoid driving or parking over dry tundra or vegetation.
  • Make sure your vehicle is current on all mechanical checkups and suited for off-road adventures.
  • Practice vehicle safety to avoid crashes or mishaps.
  • Carry a shovel, bucket and a fire extinguisher in your machine or gear to put out fires. You could also use a helmet or anything else to carry and move water. 

Please spread the word and continue to learn more about Alaska’s changing wildfire environment.

Graphic for reporting fire in Alaska.
To report a wildfire in Alaska call 800-237-3633 or 911

Reference & Ongoing Education: How Spark Arresters Work
By USDA’s Ralph H. Gonzales, Mechanical Engineer Read the entire article

“Spark arresters work on the principle of trapping or pulverizing carbon particles with a diameter greater than 0.023 in. The centrifugal trap-type arrester is by far the most common design used by OHV enthusiasts. In addition to the requirement of certain efficiency levels, a trap unit must have a clean-out device.

Various methods are used to clean accumulated carbon particles out of a spark arrester. Some include a cleanout plug, end cap, cleanout plate, inserts, snap rings, cleanout bands, and Allen bolts. The spark arrester must be serviceable without removing the complete exhaust system.

The cleanout requirement is one of the most critical elements of the trap arrester. It is also one of the most often ignored. During inspections, owners must be reminded that this type of arrester requires regular and timely maintenance, a critical element of spark arrester effectiveness.

Some models of spark arresters/mufflers require fiberglass packing. This packing should be replaced every 30 hours. Evidence of exhausted packing includes oil dripping from the exhaust tail pipe and/or excessive noise. Fiberglass is the only approved qualified packing.”

Categories: AK Fire Info, Alaska DNR - Division of Forestry (DOF), Fire Prevention, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

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