As Alaska Warms, Fires Burn Over (and Under) More Wild Land

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ANDERSON, Alaska — In the wilds north of Denali, North America’s tallest mountain, the U.S. military built a radar installation near Russian airspace during the Cold War, to detect incoming ballistic missiles in the event of a nuclear strike.

As drought dried out parts of the Alaskan wilderness this summer, the complex came under attack — not by foreign forces, but by wildfire.

In the battle against the flames, an elite federal unit of smoke jumpers parachuted into dense spruce forests to clear a landing zone for fire crews. Nearly 600 firefighters fanned out in trucks, boats and amphibious vehicles to reach other remote areas around the Teklanika River. A helicopter crashed after taking off from a nearby airstrip, killing the seasoned pilot who was moving equipment to the front lines.

“This place felt like a war zone,” said Don DeBlauw, 73, a retired construction worker who evacuated from his home near the installation in June when the flames reached his yard, torching hundreds of surrounding trees that were primed to burn. “Black spruce,” he said. “They call it gasoline on a stick for a reason.”

When crews finally got the blaze under control after about a month, they had managed to save the prized radar installation, now known as Clear Space Force Station and operated by the newest branch of the U.S. military. But the lightning-sparked Clear fire, as it was named, left a charred landscape of 72,000 acres in the wilderness around Anderson, Alaska.

A bewildering stew of factors, from spikes in intense lightning storms to a buildup of flammable grasses on thawing tundra, is driving the surge in wildfires across America’s largest state. Faced with the rapid warming of the Arctic from climate change, people living in Alaska’s fire zones are bracing for the likelihood that this year’s blazes are merely a glimpse of even larger megafires to come.

Six of the 10 largest wildfires in the United States this year have burned in Alaska. Several are still smoldering, raising fears over what are called “zombie fires” or “sleeping dragons” — fires that appear to go dark with the arrival of rains and snow, but actually slowly burn close to the ground through winter and erupt again in spring.

Until rains began drenching much of the state in July, more than 550 wildland fires had torched three million acres statewide — more than the total acreage burned this year in the other 49 states combined, and nearly three times the annual average for Alaska over the last decade.

The fires were driven in part by a severe drought in the south central region of the state, where more than half of Alaska’s population lives. For the first time in recorded history, temperatures in Anchorage went above 60 degrees every day in June, and the city received near record-low precipitation.

Alaska isn’t alone among places in the high northern latitudes that are burning this summer. Nearly 200 fires recently scorched northern Canada, while fires in Russia’s Far East this July created vast rivers of smoke across parts of Siberia that were seen by NASA satellites.

Alaska exemplifies how northern fires are growing far more destructive. Even before this year’s surge, blazes had burned more than 31.4 million acres from 2001 to 2020, more than twice the area scorched in the previous two decades, according to the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks.

Wildfires in Alaska are exceptionally difficult to combat. The Clear fire showcased the challenge of trying to contain a blaze tearing through vast tracts of boreal forest, consisting in Alaska largely of spruce and aspens. Taken together, these northern boreal forests stretch across Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Northern Europe, forming a giant reservoir of carbon dioxide.

“The ruggedness of the terrain makes it extremely tough to do the kind of fire containment we’re used to in the Lower 48,” said Kate Airhart, who deployed from Montana to help supervise nearly 600 firefighters involved in battling the Clear fire. She cited the need for helicopters and boats, as well “fat trucks,” Canadian-made amphibious all-terrain vehicles that can float in water, to reach some areas.

Instead of containing a wildfire — by creating a perimeter to keep it from spreading, as is often the practice in the contiguous United States — crews in Alaska often opt for a “point protection” strategy that shields remote homes or critical infrastructure, but effectively allows the fire to burn across tundra and large forested areas.

For the Clear fire, that largely meant trying to protect the remote settlement of Anderson, pop. 177, and an array of off-grid homes, in addition to the radar station. Despite the effort, some civilian structures, including houses, cabins, barns and sheds, were destroyed.

“I got my horse saddled up and just rode like hell to safety,” said Charmi Weker, a retired biologist, who described the flames getting so close to her house that she could hear the crackling of embers. With her husband, horses and dogs, Ms. Weker, 70, camped for five days in a nearby gravel pit as hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze.

Mr. DeBlauw, the former construction worker, is Ms. Weker’s neighbor. He and his wife, Dorothy, paid $50 an acre for 178 acres in the 1990s, part of a program to lure people to try farming in Alaska’s interior.

After evacuating in June, the DeBlauws returned to their homesite, where they grow hay. They found red fire retardant dropped from aircraft caking their house, garden and front yard. They lost two structures, a barn and a storage shed, but are able to live in their house.

“This kind of risk kind of comes with the territory,” Mr. DeBlauw said.

In part, that is because Alaska’s vast size and small population complicate firefighting. Facing strains on local resources and scrambling for personnel, the state deployed thousands of firefighters from the Lower 48 and Canada this summer.

Still, in a state where good roads are sparse or nonexistent, crews could not reach some fire zones. The distance between Alaska’s westernmost and easternmost fires this summer was 1,800 miles, about the same as from Denver to Boston.

And fires are burning in new conditions as the climate warms, blazing across the normally frigid tundra instead of being confined mainly to the flammable boreal forests. The East Fork fire, which burned about 450 miles west of Anchorage, spread over more than 250,000 acres and forced Yup’ik villagers to evacuate, putting it among Alaska’s most destructive tundra blazes on record.

Climate specialists say warming temperatures are thawing the tundra earlier in the year than in previous summers, allowing fires to spark and spread more widely. Flammable grasses and shrubs are also taking the place of more fire-resistant lichen and moss in the tundra ecosystem.

“There’s much more vegetation on the tundra, thanks to decades of warming,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “We have more biomass to burn, and that means hotter fires.”

Climate researchers are looking into other factors that are making fires more widespread, including an increase in the lightning storms that spark most blazes in the state. Alaska’s interior had about 18,000 lightning strikes in just two days in early July, Mr. Thoman noted.

“We know that with a warming environment, there is more moisture available to fuel things like thunderstorms,” he said, emphasizing that such storms are occurring more often in places that rarely had them.

Another challenge in many fire-ravaged landscapes in Alaska is the duff, a layer of slowly decomposing moss, lichen and tree needles on forest floors that is generally about a foot deep. Fire can smolder below the surface in the duff for weeks.

When conditions are dry, said Zav Grabinski with the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, flames can travel below the surface of the duff for several kilometers. That sets the stage for huge wildfires, he said.

If that weren’t enough, Alaska also faces the problem of wildfires that appear to go dark under snowy expanses but are not actually extinguished. While thought to be relatively rare, these fires can burn deep into carbon-rich soil, smoldering through the winter and re-emerging with ferocity in the spring.

Scientists call these overwintering blazes “zombie fires,” but the firefighters deployed to Anderson this summer had a different name: “sleeping dragons.” They worry that even though they appeared to have stamped out the Clear fire around the missile installation, the fire could come roaring back months later.

Said Mark Goeller, who was dispatched from Oklahoma to Anderson to serve as incident commander for the Clear Fire: “You can’t rule it out.”

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