USA – It was an unseasonably warm June night during an unusually warm season along the Kenai Peninsula, a jet of land below Anchorage. Spring had arrived early this year, when the thunderstorms rolled in and the lightning struck. The blaze started inside the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, sparking a fire that four weeks later is estimated at a size of more than 77,000 acres. Known as the Swan Lake Fire, the blaze’s western border is five miles northeast of the town of Sterling and Sterling Highway, the main roadway in and out of the area.
After three years of rainy summers and mild wildfire seasons, parts of Alaska are in the middle of a heat wave, sparking fears of devastating wildfires throughout the state this summer, requiring more national resources, according to experts.
“Alaska for the last three years has had very wet summers,” said Emery Johnson, public information officer for the Swan Lake Fire. Alaska hotshot crews were used heavily in the Lower 48 states for the past three years, Johnson said, “and now that Alaska has a pretty rough fire season ahead, we’ll be using those crews from the Lower 48.”
Hotshot firefighting crews originated in the 1940s in Southern California. The 20-member wildland firefighter crews are considered some of the most highly trained and experienced in the country. These teams — named because they often fight in the hottest parts of the fire — offer mobile reinforcements to regular wildland firefighters. Often based in a geographic region, there are more than 100 registered crews deployed nationally that travel an average of 52,609 miles between incidents, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Alaska, with more than 100 million acres spread in remote and isolated areas, is home to only three registered interagency hotshot firefighting crews.
“When there’s not much going on down in the states,” Alaska can use the national crews, Johnson said.
The fire seasons between the Lower 48 and Alaska are staggered, often allowing for an even exchange of resources. Alaska’s fire season generally starts in May — well before the Pacific Northwest’s — and ends by mid- to late July, according to Kari Cobb, a public affairs officer for the NIFC.
“It’s common for firefighting crews to mobilize across the nation where the greatest needs are,” Cobb said. The NIFC is tasked with coordinating the deployment of hotshot crews around the country.
In 2017 and 2018, the NIFC did not send any hotshot crews to the state, and there were only four mobilizations to Alaska in 2016. But in 2015, the state’s second-biggest fire season based on acres burned, 34 hotshot crews from the Lower 48 were sent to assist with fires throughout Alaska, according to NIFC records.
From 2016 to 2018 — when Alaska was experiencing mild fire seasons — the state’s three crews were sent 65 times to the Lower 48.
“When it’s busy here, they are very dependent on calling up resources from the Lower 48,” said Alison York, coordinator for the Alaska Fire Consortium. Alaska has already requested crews from Western states this fire season, even receiving aircraft support from Canada to assist with the Swan Lake Fire, she noted.
While the exchange of resources on the national and international level is the norm, some wonder what will happen as the effects of climate change intensify, creating longer and more severe fire seasons.
“A lot of managers are very concerned in the back of their heads as climate change continues that there will be significant competition and overlap in fire seasons and resources,” York said. Though there has not been much of an overlap yet, she said, many fire managers worry about a “national-level competition for fire resources.”
Experts say it can be hard to disentangle all the factors that affect the severity of any given fire season, and there aren’t enough reliable records to definitively say fire seasons in Alaska are getting worse. But there are noticeable trends.
“In general in Alaska, springs have come earlier, summers appear to be slightly warmer and drier. That has fueled a lot of the increase in burn severity,” said Adrian Rocha, an ecologist studying the effects of wildfires in northern Alaska at the University of Notre Dame. According to Rocha, the signs point to the possibility of “a really bad fire year.”
The Kenai Peninsula normally averages one fire disaster response each year, but last year, it had three disasters, according to Dan Nelson, emergency manager of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. “It seems like they’ve become more frequent and more persistent,” he said. “The number of fires in my jurisdiction has increased.”
The fire crews have monitored the Swan Lake Fire as it rages toward the east in the Kenai Wilderness but are largely letting it burn for ecological benefits, Johnson said. The hotshot teams and other crews are focusing on holding a defensive line near the community of Sterling and the only highway running through the peninsula, she said.
“We predict this fire will be here for a while,” Johnson said. “It’s significant.”