Wildfires have consumed nearly 2 million acres in Alaska so far this summer. In the Southwest part of the state, fires have scorched almost 500,000 acres in the past month. Alaska climatologist Rick Thoman says that this year fits into a trend of longer and more devastating wildfire seasons.
Wildfires in Southwest Alaska are burning near the small village of Red Devil and the proposed Donlin Mine site. The McCally Fire near Red Devil has burned more than 3,000 acres; the Smith Creek Fire near the Donlin mine site has burned 12,700 acres. The smoke from those fires is drifting to nearby communities. Aniak City Manager Diana Lehman says that the smoke is not as bad as it was last week.
"It’s been worse, but it’s definitely here," Lehman said.
Ravn Alaska said that they had to cancel at least one flight last week in the area because of the smoke. Ruby Egrass lives in Red Devil, and says the smoke cleared out a little bit during the weekend, but came back in again earlier this week.
Rick Thoman is a climatologist in Alaska. He says that this wildfire season is yet another example of climate change.
"We have a longer fire season that gives fuels time to dry out, so that’s probably the big thing: just increasingly warm summers. And when we wind up with a dry pattern, like much of mainland Alaska has been in this summer, it doesn’t take a lot to get fires going," said Thoman.
The season isn’t over yet, but Thoman says that if there isn’t significant weather change, this fire season could be one of the biggest in over a decade.
"It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that this year could be reach 3 million acres. That is possible, and that would make it the fourth largest since 2004," Thoman said.
Six million acres burned in 2004.
Thoman says that the current fires could burn into winter. If a slow burning fire gets into a layer of ground without a lot of snow where leaves and moss haven’t fully decayed, fires can smolder until spring when they flame up again.