The Kwethluk tundra fire has now doubled in size
Alaska’s first large wildfire of the season has now more than doubled in size. It’s been burning near Bethel and Kwethluk since April 16.
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources says that fires this time of year are normal, but at least one climate specialist disagrees.
As of April 18, the fire had grown to more than 4,048 acres. It’s burning 25 miles east of Kwethluk, 34 miles southeast of Bethel, and 35 miles southeast of Napakiak. The cause of the fire is unknown.
According to Kale Casey, a spokesperson from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, the wildfire is the largest of the season so far in the state. He said that wildfires in April are not uncommon, explaining that as the spring snow melts, the sun dries out the dead, brown vegetation, turning it into kindling. That kindling can quickly ignite and become a tundra fire.
But climate specialist Rick Thoman from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said that while wildfires can happen in urban areas in the early spring, they don’t usually happen in southwestern Alaska in April.
“It is weird,” said Thoman.
Thoman said that’s because usually there’s more snowpack to prevent them.
“And already, there's only been one other year, that was 1997, when we had this much acreage burn before the beginning of May,” said Thoman.
Commercial pilots first spotted smoke from the tundra blaze on April 16 at noon. They reported it to the state. Pilot and firefighter Matt Snyder from the Alaska Division of Forestry’s fire prevention branch flew over the fire over the weekend and on April 18.
The Alaska Division of Forestry says that the fire is getting close to two Native allotments and a fish weir, but Snyder said that it looked like they were going to be spared.
“Here at the base of Three Step Mountain there is a creek system running right along the base of the hill. That should be enough to stop the fire spread there to the north and towards the allotments on the top of the hill,” said Snyder in a flyover video the Alaska Division of Forestry posted to YouTube.
Kale Casey from the Division of Forestry said that they were planning on flying over the fire again, only as needed. He said there's no need to work to contain the fire because it looks like it will be contained by natural barriers like ice and snow, and is therefore unlikely to endanger lives or property.
The Alaska Division of Forestry said that it plans to investigate the cause of the fire.