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Residents of the Y-K Delta should expect more tundra fires as the climate continues to warm

Burned berry patches on the Andreafsky River.
Sophie Beans
Burned berry patches on the Andreafsky River.

In June, the largest tundra fire the region has ever seen ripped through the Y-K Delta. Life is now going back to normal for residents who live near the site of the fire, but people should expect more frequent tundra fires in coming years as the climate continues to change.

Elder Sophie Beans is standing in her wooden house near the banks of the Andreafsky River. It’s lush and green outside, but just a few miles away the earth is severely scorched.

“See right here is our camp, and it burned,” says Beans, gesturing to the wall. There hangs a vintage photo of her cabin, nestled into a spruce grove about 5 miles upriver from her main home. Now, all those spruce trees have burned down. The surrounding tundra is black.

That’s because a massive fire ripped through the tundra just outside of St. Mary’s about two months ago. At 166,587 acres, it was the largest tundra fire the region has ever seen.

Climate scientist Rick Thoman said that fires like this one were once rare. Now, he said, they are likely to become far more common as the earth continues to warm.

“The idea that there's going to be more fire on the tundra, I think, is a done deal. After decades of warmer springs and summers there's just more to burn,” said Thoman “There's going to be more land burned. That's a sure thing.

Thoman said that this summer has seen the most acreage burned for what most consider to be the Y-K Delta region. And Thoman said that most of the large region’s wildfires have occurred in the past seven years.

He said that the cause of most of the fires has been lightning. And lightning has become much more common in the Y-K Delta over recent years. He said that’s because more heat emanating from a warmer Bering Sea causes more moisture, which in turn causes more frequent thunderstorms. And when the lightning from those storms strikes the tundra, which is now usually drier from less snowmelt and more heat, fire can spread fast and far.

Elders along the Yukon River also report thicker and denser vegetation over recent years, which can serve as fuel for fires. Like the spruce trees that surrounded Beans’ cabin.

Beans said that the fire destroyed her favorite blackberry patch nearby.

In addition to the burned berry patches, the other leftover signs of the fire in St. Mary’s are the torn up tundra trenches encircling the city, scorched earth, and leftover fire retardant.

Besides that, life has largely gone back to normal in St. Mary’s. The vulnerable residents who evacuated to Bethel or Anchorage have all returned. The nearly 200 firefighters have long gone home, and the commemorative East Fork Fire T-shirt sales have ended.

Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.
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