2012 Fire Season: Alaska Fizzles While Lower 48 Sizzles

(Top) The Noatak Grand Canyon Fire in Noatak National Preserve in June, 2012, was typical of many fires in Alaska. NPS Photo/Dan Stevenson. (Bottom) The Marie Creek Fire in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Park put up an impressive column of smoke. NPS Photo by Yasunori Matsui.

It's been a record-setting year for heat, drought and wildfires in parts of the Lower 48, but Alaska is a different story. By mid-August each year the fire season in Alaska is winding down, and 2012 is headed for one of the quietest summers in years for fire crews.

The Alaska wildfire season typically begins in late May and ends in late July, and according to the National Park Service's Alaska Regional Office, an average of one million acres burn statewide each year.

This year has been anything but average.

The total acreage burned so far during 2012 has been 207,218, the second smallest in the past eleven years. The reason? A cool, damp summer with considerably less lightning than usual.

Rick Thoman, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service said, “Cool July temperatures kept blazes from spreading during the heart of the wildfire season. The average temperature during the month was 60.9 degrees, about 2 degrees cooler than normal.” This summer is quite a contrast to the 2000s when nearly two million acres burned per year, including the record-breaking 6.6 million acres in 2004.

The below-average season is reflected in activity in Alaska's National Park Service areas as well.

According to the NPS Regional Office in Anchorage, twenty-one fires totaling 72,512 acres burned this summer in Alaska’s national parks. "Fires were active in Denali NP, Gates of the Arctic NP, Yukon-Charley Rivers NP, Kobuk Valley NP and Noatak NP. Eighty-five percent of the acres occurred in Noatak National Preserve. Except for Yukon-Charley Rivers NP Marie Creek Fire, all park fires have been declared out."

For a little perspective, since 1950 a total of 1,036 fires have burned nearly 3 million acres in NPS areas in the state, and there's plenty of potential for blazes. The National Park Service in Alaska manages 15 parks, preserves, monuments and national historical parks covering more than 54 million acres of land—an area larger than the nation of Austria. Of those 54 million acres of land, nearly 30 million acres have what's considered "burnable vegetation."

Fire management in Alaska is different from the rest of the country for a variety of reasons. The lack of development in much of the state allows for a lot more discretion in how aggressively control measures are attempted on most fires, and that in turn allows fire to play a more natural role in the broad scheme of things.

"Alaska national parks experience fire and it's not all bad," notes information from the NPS Alaska Regional Office. "In fact 82% of the fires are lightning caused and burn in the boreal forest or tundra where fire is a natural process that restores ecosystem health and wildlife habitat. Fire managers balance the risks and benefits of fire by committing to safety, science, and stewardship. They also do not manage fire alone. They work with communities, local, state, federal, and native organizations to keep Alaskans safe and landscapes healthy."

An example of the low-key approach to most wildfires in Alaska is found in the Marie Creek Fire in Yukon - Charley Rivers National Preserve. The fire, located about 50 miles northwest of the small community of Eagle, Alaska, was started by lightning on the afternoon of June 5.

A National Park Service plane reported the fire to be approximately 2-3 acres in size when it was discovered, and that evening an overflight by the Alaska Fire Service reported it had grown to 5 acres, "100% active with one area of torching and the rest smoldering in black spruce and tundra on a wide arctic mesa. The fire is in limited option and was placed in monitor status."

Over the next six weeks the fire slowly grew to about 9,699 acres, but since it threatened no development or any sensitive natural or cultural sites, activity has been limited to occasional monitoring from the air, and an official "Estimated Containment Date" is listed for the end of September. In this case "containment" is simply a matter of letting the fire die out on its own.

What a contrast with life in the Lower 48!

While Alaska was experiencing its eighth wettest July on record with below average monthly temperatures, much of the rest of the country was baking.

According to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, "The average temperature for the contiguous United States during July was 77.6°F, 3.3°F above the 20th century average, marking the hottest July and the hottest month on record for the Nation. The previous warmest July for the Nation was July 1936 when the average U.S. temperature was 77.4°F. The warm July temperatures contributed to a record-warm first seven months of the year and the warmest 12-month period the Nation has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1895."

The news headlines have also reflected the impact of that weather on wildfires, and it's been an unusually tough year in places like Colorado, Oregon and Oklahoma. The Long Draw Fire in eastern Oregon burned nearly 560,000 ares during July, the largest wildfire to impact the state since the 1840s.

So,what's in store for the rest of 2012?

No one can say for certain, of course, but the National Interagency Fire Center has posted its "Wildland Fire Outlook for August through November 2012." If you're interested, you can read it here.

The National Multi-Agency Coordination Group (MAC) establishes "Preparedness Levels ... to help assure that firefighting resources are ready to respond to new incidents. Preparedness Levels are dictated by fuel and weather conditions, fire activity, and resource availability."

"The five Preparedness Levels range from I to V, with V being the highest level. Each Preparedness Level has specific management directions. As the Preparedness Levels rise, more federal and state employees become available for fire mobilization if needed."

The National Preparedness Level was increased to "IV" on August 8.

If you're tired of heat and smoke, late August and early September is a nice time to visit Alaska—especially in 2012.