It’s been a concerning hot and dry start to summer in southern Alaska.
Anchorage is experiencing its second-warmest June, according to climate scientist Brian Brettschneider. And with only 0.07 inches of rain this month in Anchorage, southern Alaska’s parched wilderness has become fuel for wildfires.
The year is on trend to be one of the largest fire seasons on record.
“There’s been about a million and a half acres burned so far this year in Alaska. In a typical year, it’s a little over a million acres for the entire season, Brettschneider outlined. “We’re already 50% higher than that.”
Fire season in Alaska typically starts the last week of May and runs through mid-August.
Several things advanced the early-season wildfires, according to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The region had limited snow over the winter, which caused quick snow melt and dry vegetation.
Thoman added thunderstorms in late May are also to blame because lightning sparked wildfires across southwest Alaska.
Lightning ignited the largest fire currently burning in the state, the Lime Complex, consuming more than 500,000 acres.
Its location in the tundra is unusual, because the area usually doesn’t burn this early in the season, Brettschneider pointed out.
Zav Grabinski, a fire science communications specialist confirmed, “We’re seeing a trend,” of more frequent, large fires.
Recent years of hot weather have led to larger fires in northern latitudes. This year’s season had a similar start to record wildfire years like 2004 and 2015.
“From 2000-2020, we saw about two and a half times more fire acres than the previous two decades,” Grabinski said. “Not only are we getting warmer summers, but we’re also seeing quite a trend of increased lightning, especially in interior Alaska.”
A persistent heat dome, or an area of high pressure creating a ‘lid’ trapping heat, has warmed southern Alaska, allowing Anchorage to reach high temperatures greater than 60 degrees Fahrenheit every day in June. The average June high is 56.
Alaska’s hope for relief is the wet season, which usually starts in late July. But according to Thoman, the earlier the fire season starts, the longer fires can burn before the rain season begins.
Wildfires, often ignited by lightning strikes or human activity, are becoming more frequent because of human-caused climate change. Grabinsky said the Arctic is warming faster than the globe on average, and the environments are very sensitive to increasing heat, producing more severe wildfires.
“It’s just another piece of our changing climate,” Thoman said. “This wildfire season could grow to be historical if the wet season is delayed. We’ve got enough fire now that realistically, it’s going to take a while to put this out.”
Thoman said the weather pattern will remain the same in the next week as temperatures remain above 60, and a cool-down isn’t expected anytime soon. Much of southwestern Alaska is also experiencing moderate drought, which will continue to fuel wildfires.
“We’ve been urging Alaskans to be very wary of local burn bans, which have been in place for weeks now,” said Joe Wegman, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Anchorage. “There’s definitely concern for the Fourth of July and if there will be more human-caused starts.”