USA – A tundra fire has burned nearly 2,000 acres on the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge over the past week.
Called the Zane Hills fire, it was first spotted by the Bureau of Land Management on April 18. It has not changed much in size in the week since, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC) noted in a situation report on April 24.
BLM Alaska Fire Service personnel happened to be flying to Noorvik that day from the Galena area for wildland firefighter training when they noticed the smoke from their aircraft, the fire service wrote in a post on the Alaska Wildland Fire Information site.
“The fire was put on monitor status because it’s burning in a limited suppression area and isn’t threatening any known sites of value,” BLM wrote.
To date, no personnel have been deployed to fight the fire. No structures have been destroyed and none are at risk, the AICC noted. The burning tundra is surrounded by snowpack that officials say will likely keep the fire from spreading significantly.
The cause of the fire is still unknown, though it is listed as being human-caused. Snowmachine tracks were found nearby.
“There were snow machine tracks found near the fire,” wrote fire service spokesperson Beth Ipsen in an email. “However, we can’t say specifically what caused the fire.”
She noted that with many fires, if lightning is ruled out as it was for Zane Hills, the fire will be listed as human-caused.
“This covers a wide variety of causes, but all related to human activity,” she wrote. “It doesn’t mean that it was intentionally or accidentally started by a human, just that the activity involved a person.”
This is the first wildland fire of its size in the Northwest Arctic so far this year.
“It’s a stark reminder that fire season is upon us despite snow still covering many parts of Alaska,” BLM officials noted.
In spring and early summer, snow starts to melt across the Arctic, which leaves patches of tundra exposed to the elements.
The sun and arid weather dry out the grasses and tundra plants, which become tinder for fires as dry, dead plant material is susceptible to burning.
“We still have to practice good fire safety,” wrote Doug Alexander, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region’s regional fire management coordinator, in the post. “It’s something that needs to be practiced 12 months out of the year.”
There have been large wildfires in the Arctic every year in recent times.
In the warm and dry summer of 2015, several fires popped up across the Northwest, including the Selawik River fire, also on refuge land. Smokejumpers were deployed for that fire, which burned more than 3,000 acres. The same year, the Salmon River fire burned a small area in the Kobuk Valley National Park.
The year before, hundreds of acres burned on the Noatak preserve. In 2007, more than 400 square miles burned on the North Slope during the Anaktuvuk River fire, which lasted for months.
“We understand that this fire isn’t going very far at this time of year, but one of these days these fires are going to get much larger,” Alexander noted.
In a proclamation on April 20, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker designated May 14-20 as Wildland Fire Prevention and Preparedness Week to bring further attention to the risk of wildfires across the state.
“The trend in recent years has been for earlier and longer fire seasons as a result of a changing climate, and on average more than 1 million acres burn as a result of wildfires in Alaska each year, making public awareness of wildland fire prevention practices and preparedness measures essential for public safety,” Walker wrote in the announcement.