Alaska wildfires: Hundreds of blazes burn across state

Authorities in Alaska are reporting an unusually high number of wildfires burning simultaneously across the tundra and forests of the state, and an exceptionally large number of homes and buildings have been damaged or threatened by the flames so far this year.

Willow Fire Capt. Leo Lashock responds to a wildfire burning near Willow, Alaska, June 14, 2015.
Mat-Su Borough | Reuters
Willow Fire Capt. Leo Lashock responds to a wildfire burning near Willow, Alaska, June 14, 2015.

Wildfires are a common occurrence in Alaska, but this year's fires started earlier than normal and have escalated quickly. A light winter snowpack and little rain in the spring left dry ground particularly vulnerable to fires that break out when lightning strikes, said Tim Mowry, a public information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.

The total area affected by the fires—roughly 624,000 acres—is not exceptional, but it is spread out over a larger number of separate fires burning in different areas, Mowry said.

The state has seen 562 fires so far this year, and the bulk of those started recently and at around the same time.

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"What is unusual is that we have almost 300 fires going right now," Mowry told CNBC. He said 21 new fires were just reported just on Wednesday. The highest number of fires reported in a single day so far is 67.

Below is an image tweeted out by the Alaska Forest Service earlier this week, showing just how numerous the fires are.

Fires are not an inherent threat to forests or wild areas. They can actually be a good thing for wildlife management—animals such as moose and grouse benefit from the new vegetation that grows in the wake of a forest fire. But the threats to the state's human population are increasing, especially as people spread further out into wilder areas, Mowry said.

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A particularly fierce blaze called the the Sockeye Fire, near the city of Palmer, destroyed 55 homes and damaged many more—a rare event.

"It is very unusual for Alaska fires to be destroying homes," Mowry said. "The No. 1 priority is to protect structures, and we have always done a pretty good job of that. But there were a few fires this year that just grew really fast."

There have been no reported deaths as a result of the fires, and Mowry was unaware of any serious injuries to either firefighters or civilians.

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But the smoke hanging in the air is unpleasant.

"Fairbanks is smoked in, and that is just part of the nature of fires and that is something residents and visitors have to deal with," Mowry said.

The state has sent 2,700 firefighters to combat the blazes, with hundreds of firefighters sometimes battling a single fire. Many fires are so far from populated areas that the state simply monitors them or leaves them alone entirely (Tweet This).

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The Sockeye Fire required 750 fighters to bring it to its current containment level of 94 percent.

As is occurring in other states such as California, wildfires could become a growing problem for Alaska. A recent report by nonprofit Climate Central said the number of Alaska wildfires has increased since 1990. The average number of "large" Alaska wildfires—defined as consuming more than 1,000 acres—is above 40 so far in the 2010s, compared with 20 per year in the 1980s.

A particularly intense 200,000-acre fire burned on the Kenai Peninsula in 2014, but the fire season overall was cut short after rain began to fall during the summer, and Alaska went on to have one of its wettest years on record, Mowry said.

However, he thinks the state should prepare for the blazes to continue this year.

"It doesn't look like the weather is going to change anytime soon, so this could be a summerlong event," he said.