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As Bethel deals with warmer-than-usual weather, a climate specialist warns that it could fuel the next wildfire season

Gabby Hiestand Salgado

There's been a real lack of sustained cold weather in the Y-K Delta this winter. Through Jan. 19, the lowest temperature in Bethel has only been negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Temperatures next week in Bethel will stay below zero, and will be colder upriver. It has already been down to minus 30 in Aniak last month, but that is a normal part of the lower Y-K Delta climate.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Climate specialist Rick Thoman said that it’s usually colder this time of year on the upper river and not as cold, but windier, closer to the coast.

“We've got a short hit of colder weather, probably will be about as cold as it's been. Might get to 15 below again at Bethel, might get a little colder, probably won't get as cold as it was last month upriver.” Thoman said. “But it looks like we're going to stay in the kind of the same weather pattern that we've been in.”

Thoman said that dealing with the wind is the biggest challenge when preparing for a cold hit.

“That can really push that colder air into houses, into crawl spaces. So even though it's only zero out, that doesn't sound so cold. But with that wind, it can really move that cold air around. So as always, want to be as insulated as you can be,” Thoman said. “Most areas in the Y-K Delta don't have a deep snowpack this year, which some years will offer some protection. Most places don't have that this season.”

The Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race starts Jan. 27 and ends on Jan. 29. Thoman said that spectators, mushers, and their dogs should expect a lack of deep cold.

“That's not unusual. And so at this point, I would say we are eight days away, so lots of time for it to change, but at this point it doesn't look like anything out of the ordinary for the race,” Thoman said.

Low snowpack is a cause for concern for Thoman.

“If we don't get significant snowfall, and we could very well make that up, but if we don't, that concern about early snowmelt and starting to dry out the tundra early,” Thoman said. “That ups the chances for another wildfire season. The pieces of the puzzle have to go together and [it] needs to be warm and dry. And you need to get those sparks from thunderstorms come May and June.”

This is a relatively new concern for the region. Sometimes smoke from interior fires would drift into the Y-K Delta, but there wasn’t the threat of flames encroaching on communities.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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