Alaska — 46,000 lightning strikes and many fires

(UPDATED at 12:22 p.m. MT, June 24, 2015)

Below is a list of fires in Alaska that are currently reported on InciWeb, sorted by size:

List of Alaska fires 6-24-2015


(Originally published at 9:09 p.m. MT, June 23, 2015)

Alaska Lightning
From Alaska Climate Info: This map shows the number of lightnings strikes in Alaska and western Canada since Saturday. The grand total was over 46,000 strikes. An average season has about 110,000 strikes. On Sunday, the Alaska Division of Forestry said that the 14,000+ lightning strikes was an all-time record (1986-present). On Monday an equal amount of strikes were recorded.
Note: Data can be found here:

A Facebook page called Alaska Climate Info has some amazing, even shocking, images of 46,000 lightning strikes in the state between Saturday and Tuesday morning, and a map showing dozens of fires that are larger than 5 acres each.

Alaska Fires, June 23, 2015
From Alaska Climate Info: Reader Tracy asked if there was a satellite image showing the smoke across Alaska. This image was captured yesterday by the Soumi-NPP (SNPP) satellite. The smoke in Interior Alaska stands out as a milky white. The bright white areas are thunderstorms and other high clouds. Active fires are shown as yellow dots.

In the image below, I believe each tag is a wildfire.

And from the National Park Service, more information about lightning caused fires in Alaska:

Denali fires
From the National Park Service: “Following a lightning storm… five wildfires are now burning in remote locations in Denali National Park and Preserve. None of the wildfires are threatening park structures or sensitive resources. Due to the remote locations, fire managers have opted to monitor these fires.

Alaska: Card Street Fire

(UPDATE at 9:25 a.m. MT, June 17, 2015)

Card Street Fire map
Map showing the location of the Card Street Fire, June 17, 2015.

More evacuations were ordered on Tuesday for the Card Street Fire near Sterling, Alaska 54 air miles southwest of Anchorage. Twice during the day residents were asked to leave areas threatened by the fire, with the Kenai Keys subdivision being affected late in the day as the 2,000-acre fire continued to burn aggressively since it started about 2 p.m. on Monday.

Most of the fire activity Tuesday was on the east side of the fire where it burned into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Sprinklers have been set up around an old U.S. Forest Service guard station on Skilak Loop Road.

Air tankers dropped over 30 loads of fire retardant to protect structures dotted throughout the area as the wildfire quickly burned south towards the Kenai River. At least five structures were destroyed in the initial phase of the fire despite efforts by Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters.

Card Street Fire
Card Street Fire, June 15, 2015. AFS photo.

Kenai forestry responded to the area with five engines and a helicopter while three local fire departments also responded to assist with structure protection. Evacuations were ordered for Fueding Lane, Aspen Street and the Kenai Keyes subdivision. The fire grew quickly and spotted across the Kenai River, causing the areas of Dow Island and Salmon Run to also be evacuated.

Firefighters positioned themselves along Funny River Road on the south side of the Kenai River to chase spot fires. Smokejumpers worked critical spots, protecting structures along the Kenai River using a boat. A park ranger also patrolled the river in a boat watching for spot fires and protecting structures. Later in the evening, a wind shift moved the fire to the east, pushing it into wetlands, which was a huge assist for firefighters protecting structures.


(ORIGINALLY published at 10:04 a.m. MT, June 16, 2015)

Card Street Fire
Map showing heat from the Card Street Fire detected by a satellite at 1:25 a.m. MT, June 16, 2015.

The Card Street Fire is causing evacuations near Sterling, Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula 54 air miles southwest of Anchorage. This new fire is in the same general area as the 2014 Funny River Fire that burned over 190,000 acres.

First reported Monday afternoon, by evening it had burned 640 acres and was threatening 200 homes. Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources said hundreds of homes have been evacuated and six structures have burned.

Red Flag Warning in Alaska, June 1, 2015

Red Flag Warning, June 1, 2015

Much of Alaska is under a Red Flag Warning today for strong winds accompanying the passage of a front.

The map was current as of 7:53 a.m. MDT on Monday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts and maps. For the most current data visit this NWS site or this NWS site.

Coal seam fires burning in Alaska

French Gulch Fire
The 108-acre French Gulch Fire, a coal seam fire burning about 5 miles east of the Parks Highway near Healy, Alaska.

The Alaska Division of Forestry is monitoring two, and possibly three, coal seam fires that popped up near Healy as a result of the recent hot, dry, windy weather.

The larger of the three fires, the 108-acre French Gulch Fire, was reported just after 7 p.m. on Sunday when somebody spotted smoke up the Healy Creek Valley. It is burning about 5 ½ miles east of the Parks Highway behind the Usibelli Coal Mine.

As of Monday afternoon, the fire was creeping and smoldering in tundra with minimal activity in the hardwoods, reported Incident Commander Shelby Majors with the Alaska Division of Forestry. The fire is in an area that has burned several times from previous coal seam fires and no structures are threatened, he said.

“It’s burning within a fire scar within a fire scar within a fire scar,” is how Mr. Majors put it.

There were three state forestry firefighters on scene and a state-contracted helicopter was used Sunday to drop water on the fire. The state borrowed a helicopter from the National Park Service on Monday to drop more water on the western edge of the fire. The plan is to prevent the fire from spreading west toward the highway and let it burn itself out using natural barriers, Mr. Majors said.

“We’re going to pretty much let it do its own thing,” he said. “The primary activity is along the southeast corner and it’s working itself into a snow field and rocks so it will be running out of fuel in the next day or two.”

Another, much smaller coal seam fire was detected on Sunday about 12 miles north of the French Gulch Fire, Mr. Majors said. That fire was only about 5-feet-by-5 feet and no suppression action was being taken because it was in an old burn area with minimal spread potential, he said.

A third fire was reported Monday morning about 5 miles north of the French Gulch Fire. That fire, which was estimated at 25 acres as of Monday afternoon, is also suspected to be a coal seam fire but that has not been confirmed, according to Mr. Majors. It too is burning tundra in an old fire scar and the potential for spread is minimal so there are no suppression efforts being taken as of Monday afternoon.

Coal seam fires are a common occurrence in the area and occasionally come to life when the conditions are right.


From Alaska Division of Forestry

Coal and coal seam fires reported on Wildfire Today.


Contemplating the Alaska fire season

grizzly bear
A grizzly bear near Bill Gabbert’s campsite in Denali National Park in Alaska. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

It can be a fool’s errand to attempt to predict the severity of a wildfire season. Using past weather data to predict the nature and number of future fires often fails.

But an article written by Ben Boettger for the Peninsula Clarion is more intelligent than most about discussing what affects a fire season and what this one might look like.

Below are some excerpts from his article:

…[Meteorologist Sharon Alden of the Alaska Fire Service’s predictive office] said there is not a correlation between a warm winter and a busy fire season, nor a correlation between a less-snowy winter and a busy fire season.

“However, there is a correlation between snowpack and the early fire season—how fast things melt out, how soon fire season starts,” Alden said.

Alden said that the intensity of fire season is more tied to precipitation than temperature, leading Fire Services to begin early preparation during the critical months of spring.

“In early spring, before green-up, the forest fuels are dryer,” Alden said. “When you have green-up, when you have trees fleshing out and new green grass is growing, you have more moisture around and it becomes a little less receptive to getting a fire started.”

In addition to leaving less moisture on the ground, a lack of snow contributes to an early fire season through its effect on grass, since grass crushed down by snow burns less easily than standing grass. Kristi Bulock, fire management officer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service region that includes the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, said that the locally-abundant calamogrostis grass is a particularly good wildfire fuel.

“One of the concerns we have this year is that without the snowpack, the grass is still three feet tall,” Bulock said. “It’s up and it’s fluffy, and it’s available for burning, where generally, under a good snowpack, it would be matted down. And then as we start getting green-up we would start getting green shoots in between, and that would lessen the potential for that fuel to carry fire. But if you look out your window now you see these giant patches of cured grass… if we have any kind of ignition source — a cigarette, somebody dragging a chain on the road — the potential could be there for it to really move through that grass…”

Secretary of Interior’s comments during Senate hearing

On February 24 Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, testified at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The primary focus of the hearing was the Department’s budget for Fiscal  Year 2016. The video of the webcast can be seen here. The proceedings begin at 18:40.

Senator Lisa Murkowski
Senator Lisa Murkowski

The Chair of the Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, recently  threatened to cut the budget of the Department of the Interior in retaliation for the Obama administration’s proposal to set aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. A severe budget reduction could result in the loss of jobs within the Department. Senator Murkowski began the hearing by stating her reservations with the decision to designate the wilderness areas.

Below are excerpts from Secretary Jewell’s prepared remarks on the subject of wildland fire. The complete text is here:


“The budget renews the call for a new funding framework for wildland fire suppression, similar to how the costs for other natural disasters are met. The initiative proposes base level funding of 70 percent of the 10-year average for suppression costs within the discretionary budget and an additional $200 million available in the event of the most severe fire activity, which comprises only one percent of the fires but 30 percent of the costs. Wildland fire continues to be one our most important land management challenges. In January I issued Secretarial Order 3336 that recognizes the critical importance of fire in protecting, conserving, and restoring the health of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem on which rural economies, wildlife – including the sage grouse – and a way of life depend. Shortly, we will be releasing our strategy for the 2015 fire season, to be followed by a long-term strategy for addressing rangeland fire prevention, management, and restoration. On a broader scale, the Department is firmly committed to the National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy and the three goals of restoring and maintaining fire-resilient landscapes, creating fire adapted communities, and safe and effective operations. In support of those goals, the budget reflects an integrated approach to wildland fire management, including $30.0 million for a Resilient Landscapes program to create landscapes that are resilient to wildfire through long-term, landscape scale, place-based projects. Resilient Landscape program projects will be accomplished through collaborative partnerships that include non-fire bureau resources and land management programs along with other Federal, tribal, State and non-governmental partners. The budget continues to include funding for the Fuels Management program to improve the integrity and resilience of forests and rangelands, contribute to community adaptation to fire, and improve our ability to safely and appropriately respond to wildfires.

Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior
Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior

The 2016 request for the Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $805.5 million without the proposed fire cap adjustment, and $1.05 billion including the adjustment. The request includes $268.6 million for fire suppression within the base budget, which is 70 percent of the 10 year suppression average spending. The cap adjustment of $200.0 million would only be used for the most severe fires, since it is one percent of the fires that cause 30 percent of the costs. The new budget framework for Wildland Fire Management eliminates the need for additional funds through the FLAME Act.

The 2016 budget requests $30.0 million in a new Resilient Landscapes subactivity to build on resilient landscapes activities supported by Congress in 2015. Congress provided $10.0 million for resilient landscapes activities in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Act by designating that amount within Fuels Management. While fuels treatments and resilient landscapes activities are complementary and synergistic, they also have distinct differences, including the methodology for prioritizing place-based projects and a leveraged funding requirement for resilient landscapes. Establishing a separate subactivity for Resilient Landscapes will assist the Department and Wildland Fire Management bureaus in tracking funds obligated and program accomplishments. The $20.0 million increase in funding will enable the Wildland Fire Management program to take better advantage of the shared goals of bureau resource management programs to treat large landscapes to achieve and maintain fire-adapted ecosystems that both reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and achieve restoration and other ecological objectives. The increase for Resilient Landscapes is partially offset with a program realignment of $17.7 million in the Fuels Management program from 2015; total funds for the combined Fuels Management and Resilient Landscapes subactivities are $14.3 million above 2015.”