An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Alaska Wildfires Could Smolder On For Months


Hundreds of fires are burning across the state of Alaska, blackening nearly 5 million acres of thick forest and tundra. The fires are the result of an abnormally warm and dry June, followed by incredible lightning storms. Cooler temperatures and rain have helped give firefighters a chance to try to catch up. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, it will take a lot more than a bit of wet weather to put out the blazes.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Walking into this section of the Aggie Creek Fire, about an hour north of Fairbanks, feels like walking into a stick-strewn muddy stew of dirt and charcoal. In the week since the fire front ripped through here, jumping the two lanes of the Old Steese Highway, there's been rainwater here, water sprayed from fire hose and dropped from helicopter, and still not far from where fire information officer Holly Krake stands, puffs of smoke rise up into the blue sky. Despite appearances, she says, the vegetation that's left, the fuels...

HOLLY KRAKE: At least here on the Aggie Creek Fire, it's still critically dry, even though we have received rain, just due to conditions, you know, here in Alaska.

ROTT: the conditions in Alaska. There are a lot of them, but one of the most unique and challenging is sitting right in front of us. Krake points to a piece of black ground, like a little plateau or butte with the mud below.

KRAKE: You can see from right here how thick this duff layer is.

ROTT: Yeah.

KRAKE: We're talking about feet and feet of duff later.

ROTT: Duff layer. In layman's terms, duff is the stuff that falls from trees, accumulating on the forest floor until it makes a layer, like a carpet. In Alaska, as Krake just said, the carpet is thick. Back in the truck, she explains that thick duff is problematic because it's hard for water or firefighters to penetrate, meaning...

KRAKE: This fuel type, the black spruce and the grass understory, will continue to smolder for weeks, multiple months on end - really until the wet season arrives and has significant wetting rains.

ROTT: That's not a rosy picture for Alaska's firefighting forces. At the end of the week, there were more than 300 fires burning in the state. Two hundred and eighty one of those fires are just being monitored - watched, because they're either too hard to reach or don't need to be fought. Twenty one of them, like Aggie Creek, are being staffed with firefighters from Alaska and other parts of the U.S. To get a better idea of the scale of all this, try the dispatch center at the Bureau of Land Management's Interagency Fire Center in Fairbanks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Aggie IC, Nine Victor Sierra on Blue.

ROTT: It's a bustle of activity - dispatchers answering phones and filling out paperwork. A map of the surrounding area dotted with green and red magnets and accompanying numbers takes up almost an entire wall of the office.

HILARY SHOOK: So every time we get a new fire, we plot it and it gets issued a number. And that's how we kind of track where everything is.

ROTT: This is Hilary Shook, the dispatch center's manager.

Did these numbers start at one?

SHOOK: Somewhere (laughter). Yeah, we've - it's pretty impressive. I've never seen this before.

ROTT: One of the fire numbers in the southwest corner is 738.

MIKE BUTTERI: Right now, it's almost like 10 years of fire history that we're getting all in one season.

ROTT: This is Mike Butteri, the fire management officer for the place that has the most of those magnets on the map - the Tanana region. More than 2.5 million acres there has burned.

BUTTERI: What's interesting is last year was the lowest acreage we've ever recorded in the Tanana zone.

ROTT: So, he says, it's been a series of extremes. One year - almost no fire. The next - so much fire that there's been weeks where trucks couldn't drive what few roads there are and aircraft couldn't fly because of the smoke, stopping deliveries of critical supplies.

BUTTERI: At one point, we were having a hard time getting food out to them in the town. Got a special-use fishing permit and started getting fish out of the Yukon River to feed the team.

ROTT: Since then, aircraft have been able to fly on some days and they've started boating supplies in using barges and even hovercraft on the Yukon River. It takes hours and huge amounts of effort, but Butteri says, in a year like this, it's the best they can do. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Fairbanks, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.