Alaska sends hotshots and airtanker to Alberta

The Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection (DOF) has sent resources to the Canadian province of Alberta, where agency information officer Lily Coyle says they’re dealing with an unusually intense early wildfire season.

Tanker 544

“They declared a state of emergency over this past weekend,” Coyle told Alaska Public Media (PBS). “On Saturday they had over 100 wildfires spreading out of control. Their Premier Danielle Smith deemed it an unprecedented crisis.”

Aerial Fire Magazine reported that at least 29,000 Albertans have been forced from their homes in the north and central regions of the province. Fire managers in Alberta have made large resource requests for outside assistance, including the airtanker and hotshot crew from Alaska. The Northwest Compactstrong intergovernmental agreement known as the Northwest Compact allows Alaska and other states and provinces to request or share resurces internationally.

Considering Alaska’s delayed snowmelt, late spring, and recent widespread moisture, the DOF made available Airtanker 544 — a Conair Dash 8 – 400
AT Airtanker — and the Pioneer Peak Hotshots, both based in Palmer. Tanker 544 departed for Alberta on May 9. Pioneer Peak IHC has extensive experience in managing fires, and the crew has completed their required 80 hours of pre-season training. The 23-person crew left Tuesday, May 9 in a smokejumper aircraft.

“Alberta was a significant contributor to the Alaska response effort last season,” said DOF Chief of Fire and Aviation Norm McDonald. “Supporting their efforts this spring is an excellent example of not only national but the international cooperation it takes to manage fires during extreme conditions. As we are just beginning the Alaska fire season with our late breakup, we will continue to monitor fire behavior and our own fire protection needs.”

Pioneer Peak Hotshots
Pioneer Peak Hotshot Crew after completing their annual 80-hour spring training in front of Pioneer Peak in Palmer, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Pioneer Peak Hotshots

Coyle said Alaska fire agencies often send resources outside the state in the fall, but she said the spring deployment is very unusual. “This is the first time we’ve sent a crew to Canada in May,” she said. “Our late fire season, coupled with the early drought conditions that Alberta is facing — that just set us up for this pretty unprecedented situation.”

On the federal side, Alaska Fire Service public affairs specialist Beth Ipsen said no resources have yet been sent to Alberta, but the agency has two hotshot crews that will be finishing training this week and may be available for deployment.

2023 Alaska outlook – dry again in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta

The Alaska Division of Forestry and Alaska Interagency Coordination Center’s early season wildfire outlook is now available, and normal fire potential is expected from March through June, except for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where above-normal potential exists beginning in April. AICC’s Fire Weather Program Manager Heidi Strader said that low snowpack could result in a busy early season out on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“Keep in mind that we have few indicators to tell us how mid-summer will be at this point,” Strader said. “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.”

Alaska potential

A typical fire season in Alaska includes about 500 wildfires that burn an estimated 650,000 acres. Every year more than 80 percent of these fires are human-caused and result from careless or negligent use of fire, often in escapes from burn barrels, campfires, burn piles, or other sources.

Alaska has been enjoying significant sunshine in March, and April will probably bring the first early-season human fire starts to low-lying areas of the state as the snowpack retreats. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows no current drought in Alaska, while the Climate Prediction Center calls for a slightly warmer and wetter spring for western and northern Alaska. Fire activity the first week of March in Alaska was non-existent with a thick blanket of snow for most of the state. Additional details are available online at the website.

Legislation allows wildfire training and employment of Alaskans in rural areas

Can include fuel reduction projects

Native Alaska Firefighters – On The Fireline – Cooling Off – In Training in McGrath Photos by Mike McMillan/AK Division of Forestry

By Alaska Fire Public Information Officers

Alaska’s “emergency firefighter act” – House Bill 209 – signed into law June 20, 2022, by Governor Mike Dunleavy enables the Division of Forestry and Fire Protection to train and employ wildland firefighters and project crews in rural areas.

Native Alaskan wildfire crews have historically been a vital part of village life and culture in Alaska, offering temporary employment to several hundred emergency firefighters (EFFs) throughout the summer months. But in recent years, limited opportunities for village fire crews and rural firefighters has been discouraging.

Alaska EFF wildland firefighters
Emergency Firefighter (EFF) Candidates Celebrate the End of their first Training Week at McGrath DOF in 2022. Photo: Gene Boyd/Alaska Division of Forestry

The purpose of the recent legislation is to alleviate many of the economic and logistical barriers to retaining rural firefighting crews throughout wildfire season – running from April to August. House Bill 209 empowers the Division of Forestry to utilize firefighters in non-emergency capacities – namely fuel reduction projects. Tree cutting, brush clearing, debris removal and pile burning helps crews learn valuable firefighting skills, building cohesion while earning a steady income.

“We want to keep people working in their communities,” said Andres Orozco, Helitak Operations Foreman at McGrath Forestry. “Our goal is to create reliable employment by investing in and building our workforce with well-trained, hard-working firefighters.” Andres predicts McGrath Forestry will train 20-30 new firefighters by year’s end – a number he hopes will double in 2023.

With near-record setting wildfire activity, Alaska moves to Preparedness Level 5

This weekend temperatures in the state could be 20 degrees above average

Alaska daily cumulative acres burned, by year
Alaska daily cumulative acres burned, by year. The black line is 2022.  Accessed June 29, 2022. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

With near record-setting wildfire activity early in Alaska’s fire season and a looming heat wave, on Thursday the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center moved to wildland fire Planning Level 5, the highest level. Currently there are multiple large fires that require incident management teams in several areas simultaneously. PL5 status means most of the initial and extended attack firefighting resources are committed to new and existing fires. Nationally the PL is 2, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center, but each geographic area establishes their own based on local conditions.

current fires, July 1, 2022 map fires
Red areas represent current fires, July 1, 2022

There are currently 160 fires in Alaska, and 17 are staffed. With the predicted hot dry weather, lightning, and Red Flag warnings, the fire risk is very high. In addition, fire smoke is at health advisory levels in parts of the state.

Red Flag Warnings, Alaska, July 1, 2022 fires
Red Flag Warnings, Alaska, July 1, 2022

More than 1,646,895 acres have burned so far this season. Since mid-June the cumulative acres burned to date has been hovering at record levels or above. As of June 29 the only year with more acres burned to date was 2015. The average total burned each year in Alaska from 1992 through 2021 was 1,192,909 acres.

Alaska heat wave, AccuWeather

Forecasters say a heat dome will settle over Alaska Friday through Monday that will challenge daily record high temperatures. Fairbanks is expected to hit an abnormally high 85 on Friday. That would be three degrees below the July 1 temperature record of 88, which was set just last year.

The abnormal heat will pile on to already abnormally dry vegetation, or as known to firefighters, fuels. In Anchorage, just 7 percent of the city’s normal June rainfall fell, while Fairbanks saw 36 percent of its typical June rainfall totals.

Firefighters stop the Elmore Fire in Anchorage, Alaska

 Q400 air tanker drops Elmore Fire Anchorage, Alaska
A Q400 air tanker, Tanker 540, drops on the Elmore Fire near Anchorage, Alaska June 23, 2022. Mike McMillan/ AK DOF.

Firefighters in Alaska were able to stop the spread of the Elmore Fire on the east side of Anchorage Thursday at 13 acres before it spread into structures. It was reported at 5 p.m. in the Campbell Track area near the intersection of Dowling and Elmore Roads.

Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022
Alaska Dept. of Forestry firefighters on the Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022. Mike McMillan-Alaska DOF.

Personnel responded from the Pioneer Interagency Hotshot Crew, Palmer forestry, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Anchorage Fire Department, and Alaska Division of Forestry (DOF). A group of Canadian firefighters staged in the area with the DOF through the use of the Northwest Compact were also on scene.

Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022
Alaska Dept. of Forestry firefighter on the Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022. Mike McMillan-Alaska DOF.

The firefighters were assisted by one DOF helicopter and two fixed wing air tankers operated by Conair, a Q400 and a Convair 580. The Q400, Tanker 540, is seen above.

Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022
Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022. Brent Goodrum-Alaska Div. or Forestry

The DOF has a contract with Conair to supply two Convair 580 air tankers, but the company has the option to substitute one of their Q400 tankers for a 580 at the same price. One of the tankers is usually based at Palmer and the other at Fairbanks.

Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022
Alaska Dept. of Forestry firefighters on the Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022. Mike McMillan-Alaska DOF.

In 2021 Conair purchased 11 Q400 aircraft from Flybe Airlines. The first one was delivered at Conair facilities in Abbotsford, British Columbia, February 21, 2021. After being converted to air tankers, called A400ATs (Air Tanker), they will eventually replace the L-188’s and CV-580’s currently operated by Conair. Showcasing a Q400 in Alaska can increase the familiarity of the tanker among Conair’s potential clients.

The repurposed Q400s are capable of holding up to 2,640 gallons of retardant. The CV-580s were produced between 1947 and 1954 and can carry up to 2,100 gallons. The Q400 cruises about 50 mph faster than a CV-580.

Before purchasing the 11 Q400’s from Flybe, Conair had two A400ATs operational within their fleet that were used in 2021 for the first time in the North American fire season, including Alaska. They also had one under contract in Australia during the 2020-2021 bushfire season.

In 2017 the Conair Group secured a deal to sell six Q400MR (Multi-Role) air tankers to France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defense and Emergency Preparedness). These were new aircraft that Conair purchased from Bombardier which can be reconfigured in a few hours to carry passengers, hence the Multi-Role designation. The new aircraft are replacing France’s old S-2 air tankers.

Wildfire in Southwest Alaska burns more than 10,000 acres

Less winter snow than usual, and dry, windy weather contributed to the growth

Kwethluk Fire, southwest Alaska, April 21, 2022
Kwethluk Fire, southwest Alaska, April 21, 2022. Alaska DNR DOF.

At Wildfire Today we don’t often write about fires in Alaska. In some years they have a great many fires but it varies enormously from year to year. Since 2010 the number of acres burned annually has ranged from a low of 181,169 in 2020 to a high of 5,111,404 in 2015. Many of the blazes are not suppressed and they don’t often affect a significant amount of private property or structures.

But it stirred my interest when I saw a headline about a current fire that is supposedly the largest April wildfire in Alaska in a quarter century. It is the 10,302-acre Kwethluk Fire in southwest Alaska 30 miles southeast of Bethel. An April 26 article in the Anchorage Daily News reported that climate scientist Rich Thoman said, “It’s not like dry Aprils are unusual; this is the dry season. But typically you would expect there would still be enough snow around that, even if a fire got going, that it would, within yards, run into snow.”

The area had less snow than usual this winter and it melted and exposed the tundra early. Wind, sun, and less precipitation than usual have dried out the fuel.

Map, Kwethluk Fire, southwest Alaska, April 24, 2022
Map, Kwethluk Fire, southwest Alaska, April 24, 2022.

The Alaska Division of Forestry reported April 26 that the spread of the Kwethluk Fire had stopped.

Below are excerpts from an April 26 update by the DOF about the fire:

“Burning in tundra, grasses and brush since Saturday April 16th, the wind driven wildfire has been finding sun dried fuels in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.  DOF’s mapping specialist Matt Snyder flew a mapping and reconnaissance of the fire today noting in his field report this afternoon: “the fire is showing no smoke or activity. An infrared (IR) scan showed no heat. The fire will remain in monitor status so that further aerial observations can be made.”

“Originally scheduled for yesterday but delayed due to heavy cloud cover, today’s flight under clear sky shows the lack of smoke production from what was a 10% active perimeter when last observed on Friday’s flight. The natural barriers halting further spread include mountains, winter snowpack, icy creeks and rivers. Precipitation and increased humidities have also slowed fire spread. Persistently able to throw spotfires over frozen creeks and drainages for most of the last 10 days, the Kwethluk Fire remains two miles from the nearest native allotment.

Kwethluk Fire, southwest Alaska, April 26, 2022
Kwethluk Fire, southwest Alaska, April 26, 2022. Alaska DNR DOF.

“Values at risk include native allotments one mile to the northeast, 2.3 miles to the southeast, 3.3 miles to the west, and the Kwethluk Fish Weir approximately 5 miles to the west southwest. An additional surveillance flight will take place this week as needed and fire managers will continue to monitor both satellite heat sensors, FAA Weather Aviation cameras, and good Samaritan reports from Kwethluk, Bethel and Napakiak.

“It is common to have wildfires at this time of year in Alaska. As our daylight lengthens, the snowpack recedes and exposes the tundra grasses, mosses and shrubs to the drying effects of the wind and the sun. These conditions, coupled with sparse precipitation, work to dry out the tundra plants and make them available as fuel for combustion. Western Alaskan wildfires burning at this time of year tend to be wind driven and fast moving but also short-lived. These fires cannot burn deeply below the surface due to the shallow frost layer and tend to readily extinguish themselves as they encounter drainages and sloughs, differing vegetation, existing areas of snow, or changes in weather.”

Below is a flyover of the Kwethluk Fire narrated by DOF Specialist Matt Snyder recorded April 18, 2022. At the time it was 4,048 acres.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gerald.

More information about the fire from the Alaska Division of Forestry.