Record low fire season caused by precipitation and humidity

Adrian Peterson learns about the records lows of the 2023 fire season.
Published: Jul. 6, 2023 at 8:47 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The 2023 fire season in Alaska has passed by unnoticed as record low reports show little activity.

Approximately 3.08 million acres burned in Alaska during the 2022 fire season. The interior made up about one-sixth of that statewide total, with 453,362 acres burned. The intensity of the 2022 fire season required out of state aid with crews coming up from Washington and California to help put out fires at Minto Lakes and Clear. Meanwhile, hundreds of firefighters from other locations arrived to fight the flames across other portions of the last frontier.

Unlike the blazes of 2022, Alaska has seen little fire activity in 2023, most of the fires so far having been small and short lived. “We’re at a pretty good spot in terms of fire weather,” said Bobby Bianco, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, Alaska. According to Bianco, the lack of fires in 2023 primarily stems from current and residual precipitation. “We’ve been pretty wet across much of the state and with that our soils have been wet, our fuels have been wet and not really too dry.” Much of the early season precipitation came from a long and late break up season that ran into the official beginning of fire season which starts April 1.

Adding to the already wet ground which didn’t truly thaw until May in Fairbanks, the interior has experienced a healthy amount of summer precipitation, keeping the fuels wet. These factors have helped prevent new fires from starting, unlike 2022.

Last season, break up came early and ended fast providing a lot of dry and exposed fuel at the beginning of the fire season. “That’s one of the largest factors that we do see,” said Bianco. But, that’s not the only difference resulting in the lack of fires this year.

Thunderstorms have been present in both 2022 and 2023. They were also a major cause of wildfires last year, but this hasn’t been the case in 2023. The National Weather Service credits this to humidity. “If we have a lot of dry air below the cloud deck, so the base of a cloud, we’ll have a lot less rain even if we have a lot of lightning with it,” said Bianco. These are called dry thunderstorms and there were a lot of them in 2022. Normally, more lightning means more rain and more intense downpour Bianco said. This year Alaska has seen more of the normal thunderstorms than the dry thunderstorms.

Alaska also hasn’t had nearly as many fires in 2023 as it did in 2022. “We’ve had about 150 wildfires this season with possibly a couple being lightning,” said Megan Mitchell, a prevention technician with the Dept. of Natural Resources. At this time last year there were over 200 active fires and hundreds more had been put out or burnt out naturally. While lighting was the biggest contributor to fires last season, in 2023, “most of them have been human caused and that’s why we want to practice safe burning practices,” Mitchell said. As of July 5, 2023, only 23 fires are active in Alaska.

Not only is the state low in active fires and fires overall, but the amount of land damaged by wildfires is either at or near a record low for July. In the 2023 fire season just over 1,300 acres have been struck by flames. “That’s one of the smallest seasons that we’ve had for acres burned,” said Mitchell. It’s a drastic difference compared to last year, “at this time we were either pushing or getting over 1 million acres so, it’s a record low for this time of year,” said Bianco.

While the 2023 season has been relatively calm, the risk of wildfires doesn’t go away. Anyone planning to have fire or burn materials is encouraged to call the DNR’s burn permit hotline at 907-451-2631.