Fighting fires in the tundra

Published: Aug. 5, 2023 at 12:03 PM AKDT
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As the interior continues to see fires spark up, the task of putting out the flames is no walk in the park. The dense interior woodlands make for a difficult environment to fight the flames, but most of these fires are managed by the Division of Forestry. Up north however, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Alaska Fire Service is faced with both woodlands and grassy tundra plains.

The BLM provides fire suppression north of Chicken, Alaska. This means their jurisdiction goes beyond the interior’s boreal forests and into the tundra. Fires in the far north come with unique challenges such as a lack of roads, spongy surfaces and exposure to strong winds.

“The Yukon Flats is also an area that tends to be drier than anywhere else in the state and fire season tends to linger a little bit later up there,” said Beth Ipsen, public affairs officer for the BLM Alaska Fire Service. The circumstantial conditions of the far north provide both benefits and draw backs for fire crews in the area. One of those benefits is a lack of population centers, meaning firefighters often don’t have to worry about flames threatening people and structures.

On the other hand, the same rural areas make it difficult to bring resources to the fires. “They’re hard to walk around, those tussocks, it’s pretty spongy,” said Ipsen. The spongy ground in the tundra increases the chance of injuries for the ground crews. “You’re always worried about things, you know getting injured, twisting a knee or ankle,” added Ipsen.

The fuels also present dangers to the firefighters just like any other location, but in the tundra the flames tend to spread quickly in the grass. According to Ipsen, it’s considered a “flashy fuel.”

One benefit of the grass is the ease with which the flames can be put out. “You can beat it out. We have this special tool called a beater where basically you beating and smothering it on the surface,” Ipsen explained. “As long as it’s a surface burn which so far is what we’ve seen the most of.”

This due to Alaska obtaining a large quantity of snow over the winter and break up season was lengthy compared to other years. With the longer lasting and larger quantity of surface snow, the underbrush and soils have remained wet which has helped to prevent ignition of fires in the tundra. Recent heatwaves have haltered that streak however.

It’s not all bad news though. Even with the wide open spaces and stronger winds that push flames far and wide, aerial resources are more useful in the tundra. Due to the lack of trees, helicopters and planes that dump water play a huge role in removing a blaze, as they are able to reach the source of the fire without obstacles.

Unfortunately, aerial vehicles are the only vehicles that see large use in the tundra due to a lack of roads. “Out there it’s strictly aviation, it’s strictly people on the ground,” said Ipsen. This does lead to a delay in response times and limits how and when crews can respond as aerial vehicles face smoke density limitations.