Witnessing Wildfires at Wrangell-St. Elias


Alaska Field Dispatch by Montana Napier

ABOVE: Montana looks out on the haze created by a nearby wildfire. 

A local Alaskan grilled moose burgers for the guests at a housewarming party he and his girlfriend were throwing. People were gathered around a campfire, listening to music, chit-chatting and admiring their hosts’ freshly constructed log cabin. I sat on a tree stump, munchin’ on one of those aforementioned burgers, when some dead leaves on the ground caught fire. Our host noticed right away and quickly stomped the leaves out. “Oh wow,” he said. “That caught from just the grill lid – talk about dry conditions!”

It wasn’t surprising though. Talk around the campfire was that National Park Service Fire Management planned to initiate a fire ban for the area. It was the beginning of June and wildfires had had sprouted all across the vast landscape. About a week later, a lightning strike ignited a wildfire in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, where I am interning through the Student Conservation Association (SCA).

At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the United States. It is a land of superlatives – largest this, highest that. The park contains nine of the 16 highest peaks in the US, and the continent’s largest collection of glaciers. It is arguably the wildest too, with the largest area of protected wilderness (9 million acres) in the park system.

After the fire ignited 18 miles from the Canadian border along the Chisana River, a park-wide fire ban was put into place, and then eventually a state-wide ban. My grandma called me up one day and said, “I think the fire in your park is on national news!”

“Wow!” I said. I hadn’t watched TV in months, and it was exciting to imagine my park in the news.

Kennecott, an old mining town located deep withing Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Photo: Montana Napier/NPS

But it wasn’t just Wrangell-St. Elias. What she saw on TV were expansive stretches of the state on fire, acres burning at an incredible rate. The preparedness level of Alaska was 5 out of 5, meaning that “resistance to control is high to extreme and resistance to extinguishment is high.” At the junction between McCarthy and Kennecott, a Smokey the Bear sign sits outside the area’s volunteer fire department headquarters, informing the public of general fire risk. I have watched the sign bounce back and forth between “High” and “Extreme” all season.

People in areas near the wildfires are affected by a thick blanket of haze – Wrangell-St. Elias included. I am stationed in the old mining town of Kennecott, a National Historic Landmark. I spend my days working in the Visitor Center, as well as developing and presenting interpretive programs to visitors. On my 45-minute guided walk through the boreal forest, I have visitors look out at Fireweed Mountain, paying attention to the distinct line of spruce trees to willows. For most of June, you couldn’t see that line of dark green to light, or the view of the surrounding mountain ranges, the Wrangells and the Chugach.

Haze resulting from the wildfires. Photo: Montana Napier/NPS

One day a group of visitors from Fairbanks showed me pictures of an orange blob in a cloud of grey, the sun obscured by smoke from an out-of-control fire nearby. They talked about donning face masks to go about their daily tasks. Fairbanks, at the time, hit an air-quality level of PM2.5—particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers—around 250 micrograms per cubic meter. In plain English, the air-quality was classified as “hazardous” to health.

Wildfires are a natural and essential component of the boreal forest and arctic tundra ecosystems. Fire removes undergrowth, stimulates seed germination, and controls insects like the spruce bark beetle, which feeds on weak and dying trees. However, there has lately been an increase in the frequency and intensity of these fires. This year has been exceptionally hot and dry in the state. In fact, Alaska is warming at a rate twice as fast as the Lower 48, with a 3-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures since the 1950s. Alaska’s fire season is also off to an unprecedented start. According to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, 2015 is now well ahead of the rate of burn seen in the worst fire year on record, 2004, when 6,590,140 acres burned in 701 fires. This year over 5 million acres have already burned, and it is only early August.

Every currently burning wildfire in the state. Click the image for an up-to-date interactive map from the Bureau of Land Management.

As I write this, there are over 300 fires burning in the state and many will continue to burn without suppression. The Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan prioritizes action where fires pose a heightened risk, i.e. a need to protect human life and health, private property, and cultural resources. ‘The intent is not to minimize acres burned, but to balance the acres burned with suppression costs and to accomplish land and resource management objectives.’

Wildfires can be dangerous and difficult to contain, and can increase the potential for flooding, debris flows, and landslides. Besides releasing trapped carbon into the atmosphere as CO2, an increase in fire frequency and intensity could also affect permafrost thawing. These frozen soils underly 80 percent of Alaska, and with fires burning above them, could release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere too, exacerbating climate change.

In preparation for my internship, I looked into what type of clothes and camping gear I should bring with me to Alaska. I came prepared for highs in the 70s and frequent rain, but have experienced consistent temperatures of 80 and above. Most days are sunny and I often walk or bike through a plume of dust rising from the dry, gravel road. What can I say – weather is what you get, whereas climate is what you can expect. And Alaska is undoubtedly experiencing a disruption in its climate system.