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.

Researchers study conditions that can lead to overwintering wildfires

Sometimes called “zombie fires”

Boney Creek Fire in Alaska
Boney Creek Fire in Alaska, July 19, 2019. Photo by Camila Roy, BLM.

Spatiotemporal patterns of overwintering fire in Alaska

By Rebecca Scholten and Sander Veraverbeke
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

What are holdover and overwintering fires?
Fires can appear to be out, but retain smoldering combustion deep in the fuelbed and flare up again when the weather favors flaming behavior and fire spread. This phenomenon occurs not infrequently in boreal forests of North America, and presents a well-known challenge to firefighters. Over the last two decades, fire managers noted increasing occurrences where fires survive the cold and wet boreal winter months by smoldering, and re-emerged in the subsequent spring.

Scientists and managers seek better understanding of how these fires sustain during such unfavorable conditions. Fire managers have already started targeting locations where they expect fires to flare up again. However, they are missing detailed information on the environmental and climatic factors that facilitate these fires. This information is crucial to detect fires at an early stage and keep firefighting costs low. A research group at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is studying when and where these holdover fires emerge and how their occurrence is tied to specific geographic locations.

Mapping overwintering fires from satellite data
Since 2005, fire managers reported data on 39 holdover fires that survived winter in Alaska. However, the location and emergence date of these fires were used in conjunction with satellite data to develop an algorithm for overwintering holdover detection. From satellite imagery, we can only observe fires that are large enough to generate a considerable amount of heat and burn a large enough area. Consequently, 32 out of 39 reported overwintering fires were too small (all smaller than 11 ha, 25 out of 32 smaller than 1 ha) to be detected from space. The location and emergence date of these small overwintering fires were used for the calibration of an algorithm focused on large overwintering fires. From the remaining seven large reported overwintering fires, our algorithm classified 6 out of 7 as overwintering fire. In addition, our approach revealed 9 large overwintering fires that were not reported by agencies between 2002 and 2018 in Alaska. A results paper is currently in preparation.

The spread rate of smoldering fires is known to be very low, and a smoldering fire would spread only between 100 and 250 m in an entire year (Rein, 2013). So, overwintered fires usually emerge within or close to the previous year fire (Fig.1) and can re-emerge with flaming behavior as soon as favorable burning conditions appear in spring develop in to flaming forest fires before the major lightning-induced fire season. The onset of warm and dry conditions varies from year to year depending on the winter and spring temperatures and precipitation. These variables also shape the regional snowmelt day, which can be inferred from satellite observations. Indeed, our research indicates that holdover fires usually re-emerge within 50 days after the regional snowmelt. Overwintering fires are more likely to occur the year after a large fire
year (Fig. 2).

Overwintering wildfires
Figure 2: Years with a large burned area (grey bars) are more likely to generate
overwintering flare-ups (orange bars) than years with less burned area. Rebecca Scholten and Sander Veraverbeke.

Can we predict where overwintering may re-emerge?
It is not only important to know when these fires emerge, but also where. We therefore analyzed spatial drivers of the overwintering fires we detected. Our research indicates that holdover fires are facilitated in those regions of a fire perimeter that had burned deeper into the organic soil the year before. Deep burning is a characteristic of a high severity fire. We also observed that overwintering fires were more likely to emerge in lowland areas with black spruce-dominated forest. Overwintering fires thus have some temporal and spatial predictability. Monitoring the edges of fire perimeters from the preceding year in lowland forested peatlands early in the fire season, and especially after a year with large burned area, may prove beneficial to extinguish flare-ups from overwintering fires before they develop into a large flaming forest fire. This could be a cost-efficient strategy for fire management agencies. In addition, this would preserve terrestrial carbon by safeguarding it from combustion.

This article is from the Alaska Fire Science Consortium’s Fire Science Highlights.

Alaska fire crews mobilized to the lower 48

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Fire crews line up to board a National Interagency Coordination Center aircraft at the BLM Alaska Fire Service on Fort Wainwright Friday, July 24, 2020. Photo by Tim Mowry, Alaska Division of Forestry.

Three Alaska wildland firefighting crews traveled to the Lower 48 states on Friday to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in the western United States.

The three crews – the BLM Alaska Fire Service Midnight Sun Hotshots, Chena Hotshots, and the Alaska Division of Forestry White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack Crew – boarded an airliner at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks Friday morning. The aircraft came up to Alaska from the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho Thursday to transport the crews to Boise, where they will be quickly assigned to one of a multitude of wildfires burning in the western U.S.

“It’s always sad leaving Alaska but it will be good to get down there,” Iris Sager, crew superintendent for the Chena hotshot crew, said.

Alaska’s fire season was slowed by abundant and widespread rainfall the past five weeks that has dampened wildfire danger across the state. Because of this, Alaska’s wildland fire agencies have made many resources available to assist with the national firefighting effort while keeping adequate firefighters and aircraft in Alaska to handle any fire activity here.

The mobilization of firefighting resources to the Lower 48 is an annual tradition, similar to Alaska importing firefighters and aircraft from the Lower 48 to assist with wildfires here. Firefighters from Alaska travel to the Lower 48 almost every year to help other agencies battle wildfires after the Alaska fire season winds down, usually in mid- to late-July.

The three crews that departed Alaska on Friday totaled 62 firefighters and will add to the 60 other Alaska firefighting personnel that are already working in the Lower 48. One other crew – the Division of Forestry’s Pioneer Peak Hotshots – flew south last week and is working on the Cedar Fire in Nevada.

In addition, 13 Alaska Smokejumpers are in the Lower 48 working, as well as multiple other personnel filling positions such as dispatchers, heavy equipment managers, engine bosses and division supervisors.

Three more Division of Forestry crews – the Gannett Glacier, Tanana Chiefs, and Yukon Type 2 initial attack crews – are scheduled to fly to the Lower 48 early next week.

Given the fact that Alaska’s wildland fire season has been very slow this season and crews have been relegated to working on fuels reduction projects and other project work the past several weeks, firefighters welcomed the opportunity to head south to work on actual fires.

“We’ve spent less than 20 days on fires this summer,” White Mountain crew superintendent Owen Smith said as he waited to board Friday’s flight. “Everybody is ready for an assignment.”

As of Friday, a total of 309 fires had burned an estimated 178,025 acres in Alaska this summer, which is well below the approximately 650,000 acres that burns in a typical fire season.

Barring any major drying event in Alaska over the next month or two, crews will likely remain in the Lower 48 until fire season in the western U.S. dies down, which isn’t typically until September or October.

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
BLM Alaska Fire Service fire specialist Tasha Shields hands crew members bag lunches prior to them boarding a National Interagency Coordination Center jet at Fort Wainwright, Alaska Friday, July 24, 2020. Photo by Tim Mowry, Alaska Division of Forestry.

Firefighters wore facemasks as they lined up to board the plane on Friday at Fort Wainwright. BLM Alaska Fire Service workers, also wearing facemasks, handed each firefighter a bagged lunch as they boarded the flight to Boise.

While the increase in COVID-19 cases in Alaska and across the U.S. is a concern, it’s something the crews and other Alaska firefighting personnel have been dealing with since the season started in April. Agencies and crews have COVID protocols in place to help prevent the spread of the virus and each crew was traveling with at least three days of personal protective equipment  such as facemasks and hand sanitizer.

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Chena Hotshots arrive in Boise, Idaho July 24, 2020. NIFC photo.

“I think it would be harder if any of us had families and didn’t live by ourselves,” Smith said in reference to mobilizing to the Lower 48 during the pandemic. “It definitely makes it interesting.”

Returning personnel will follow Alaska state and local health mandates addressing testing and quarantining upon return from their Lower 48 assignments. In some cases, personnel will spend days off in the Lower 48 instead of returning to Alaska in between fire assignments.

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Midnight Sun Hotshots arrive in Boise, Idaho July 24, 2020. NIFC photo.
Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Alaska fire crews arrive in Boise, Idaho July 24, 2020. NIFC photo.

From the BLM Alaska Fire Service

Pioneer Peak Hotshots prepare for the fire season

Pioneer Hotshots
The Pioneer Hotshots, April, 2020. Behind them is their namesake, Pioneer Peak, in the Chugach Mountains. Photo courtesy of the crew.

The Pioneer Peak Interagency Hotshot Crew has completed their annual critical refresher training and is ready to fight fire. Most Hotshot crews are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, or NPS, but Pioneer Peak, based in Palmer Alaska northeast of Anchorage, is one of three that are part of state organizations. The others are Alta and Lone Peak in Utah. The only county crew is Rio Bravo in Kern County, California. (The complete list is here.)

The text below was posted April 24 by Pioneer Peak along with the photo on their Facebook page.  It is used here with permission:

“The 2020 Pioneer Peak Hotshot Crew! We’ve just finished our 2 weeks of critical training. You won’t see this crew socially distancing from each other while we train. We will train as we fight and we will be fighting together as one family unit. It’s the only safe way to do our job effectively. We’ve implemented new SOP’s into our program so we don’t help the spread of this virus while in public settings.

“A lot of sacrifices are being made by our folks and their families to make this happen and they really need your support. We will keep our distance from the general public and we will wear masks if we enter public spaces like gas stations or grocery stores. We’re also disinfecting our rigs and facilities twice daily. Those are just a few examples. Our hand washing skills are also on point these days! Thank You for the support!”