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.
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.
“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.