Luckily, we have not had a bad wildfire season in Alaska for 2021. We did have a fire flare up close to Fairbanks late last week, when smokejumpers, seen above, landed at UAF’s LARS location, where the herd of muskox can be seen roaming the hills. From the muskox field, the smokejumpers hiked the half mile to the fire’s location. That fire was quickly under control, and the firefighters went back to the Munson Creek fire soon after they were dispatched.
With just under 180,000 acres burned within the state so far this season, it puts us roughly equal with 2020 and within the lowest range of burned area since 2008. The Interior remains in a burn ban, but historically, 2/3 of acreage within a season has burned by July 15.
Figures,facts, graphics and video all from the Alaska Division of Forestry
The fire started in a dentist’s office at 3pm on May 22, 1906. The source of the blaze has always been disputed: one theory was a candle started the fire, and another has a breeze blowing through an open window, sending a curtain over the flame of a bunsen burner.
Fairbanks was only a couple of years old in 1906, but due to the discovery of gold nearby, it had become a thriving community. The buildings were all constructed out of local lumber, so by the time the horse drawn fire department wagons were on the scene, the blaze was well underway.
The Northern Commercial Company had installed some fire hydrants in Fairbanks, powered by steam from their plant. Many of those hydrants were positioned to protect NCC property, although they charged the city $600 per month for the hydrants. Firehoses were located in small structures next to the hydrants. In 1906, Fairbanks had six full time firefighters, who were paid $100 per month.
Citizens from the town turned out in droves to help the small fire fighting force. Many manned fire hoses, others tried to save merchandise from businesses and possessions from homes in the fire’s path. Residents hung wet, wool blankets over doors, walls and even the sternwheelers, in an attempt to keep the fire at bay. That effort probably saved the Fairbanks Banking Company.
With the size of the fire, and the sheer number of fire hoses, the NC Co plant struggled to keep water pressure up. The steam driven fire pump was kept at pressure by wood fired boilers. NCC store manager, Volney Richmond, came up with the unique idea to add slabs of bacon to the boilers. The idea worked, and water pressure was increased. By the time the fire was under control, over 2000 pounds of slab bacon was burned in the boilers.
By 7pm, the fire was mostly under control, which meant that much of the city was now a field of burning embers. Over 70 buildings were destroyed in the fire.
“With the exception of the Fairbanks Banking Company’s building and the warehouse in the rear nothing is left standing in the four great blocks which comprised the commercial heart of Fairbanks.” – Fairbanks Times
In 1906, merchandise was brought into Fairbanks mostly by boat. Ships traveled up the Inside Passage from Seattle and San Francisco, their loads then came up the Yukon, Tanana and Chena Rivers to Fairbanks by sternwheeler. The process of ordering supplies started right away, including over 1500 feet of firehose lost in the fire. The rebuilding of Fairbanks began immediately. Local lore has the owner of the Senate Saloon contracting a crew by 6:30pm that night, with work beginning on clearing the site of his lost business the next morning.
Photos from the University of Alaska Archives; Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks, Retired Fairbanks Fire Captain Jack Hillman
Alaska may have only two seasons: Winter and Wildfire
This week is Wildfire Prevention Week in Alaska. We have already seen some burn bans in the Interior, although not around Fairbanks yet. Amazing how quickly the ember turns up here, as we still seem to be slogging through breakup.
As of Monday, Alaska has had 60 fires start up this fire season within the state. Of those, 55 have been human-caused. Only two fires were determined to be caused by lightning, and there have been three fires where a cause has not been determined, as of this writing.
Thunderstorms have returned to the Interior, and we did get almost 40 strikes on Saturday. Also last week, the first coal seam fire of the season was detected down by Healy, which is just north of Denali National Park. The coal seam fire was extinguished by water drop. It is the site of several coal seam fires in recent years.
After going through a long winter, nothing gets Alaskans crankier than a smoke filled summer. Mother Nature does not need help in the area of wildfire ignition, so let’s not add to the burned acreage with laziness and thoughtless behavior.
It may seem like an odd time to think of the fire season here in Alaska. After all, we officially had 29 inches of snowpack at the end of March, and have been adding to that steadily during this first week of April.
In a state that boasts some of the finest summers on this planet, one thing that can ruin a summer in a hurry is a bad wildfire year. Alaska has been trending upward in acres burned over the past 60 years. From 1.6% of the state seeing wildfires during the decade of 1961-1970, to 3.1% of the state going up in smoke in the most recent decade.
2004 was the worst year on record with 6.6 million acres burned. It was a nasty summer here in the Interior. I had hiked the Chilkoot Trail at the end of June, and had made it back to Skagway in time for July 4th, only to find out the embers had really hit the fan. Wildfires were everywhere between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in the Yukon. In Skagway, I called my Dad to tell him not to visit in a few days, because the smoke was so bad, but he came up anyway. We sat on my deck one evening and watched lightning start a fire a couple of valleys over. The next morning air tankers were dumping water over the fresh fire. We climbed to the ridge top in the evening to see a wall of flame across the valley floor.
I couldn’t count the number of dry thunderstorms we saw that summer. I remember standing out on my deck at 2am one morning, lightning was flashing down on the hills all around me, but all I could see was an eerie glow in the thick smoke, followed by the thunder crashing down, rolling across the land. If a fire had started close by, I would never know until the flames were roaring upon the cabin. The smoke was so thick that visibility was down to mere feet.
Photo credit: National Weather Service – Fairbanks
A smokenado rose up from a wildfire near Fairbanks. Over the weekend, 23 new wildfires were started by lightning in Alaska. The sheer number of strikes was impressive: there were 1860 recorded lightning strikes on Saturday, and an additional 2900 by 8pm on Sunday.
Wildfires are the last thing that is needed right now, on top of everything else going on, but the month of May has been dry across much of Alaska, so the scent of wildfires was not a surprise.
Last summer, back in the days when I was volunteering to self-isolate, I was out at a lake cabin and happened to see a wildfire gets its start from lightning.
The following day, a pair of water scoopers showed up at the lake. They would fly overhead, bank around the lake, skim across the top of the lake, picking up their load of water, then take off again to fly back to the fire. The two aircraft made the roundtrip from fire to lake to fire, all day long.
Of the twelve months, September is my favorite in Interior Alaska. That holds true even though I know what lies just around the corner.
The length of days would be considered “normal” in the Outside world. Sunrise on the final day of August was 6:29am, with sunset coming in at 9:12pm, for a loss of 7 minutes from the day before.
Mornings carry a heavy dew, and there is a definite chill to the air. We have already seen several nights with a hard frost. A hike down any trail is likely to bring the scent of woodsmoke from a cabin or two. Finally, the scent comes from chimneys and not wildfires.
The change of colors has started
The sound of cranes and geese filled the air today, as they gather their flocks for the trip south. A bull moose showed himself this morning; his massive set of antlers now devoid of velvet. For the next two weeks, I expect he will make himself scarce.
Finishing preparations for the coming winter likely dominate thoughts, but one can not forget to get outside and enjoy the brilliance of this month of transformation.
As much as I love the long days of June, I revel in the colorful days of September.
The road to Seward had an unexpected gauntlet north of the town of Willow, Alaska. Severe winds had knocked over a power pole, and the resulting sparks set off a wildfire along the Parks Highway.
The winds were still howling when we went through. Firefighters were on the scene, but things didn’t look good. By the time we made it to Anchorage, we learned that the fire had made the jump, and both sides of the road had flames. The Parks had been closed to traffic behind us.
A smokey Seward Harbor
The high winds continued on the Kenai Peninsula, as we drove south on the Seward Highway. The Swan Lake Fire had been all but contained, but the winds gave it a breath of new life, which closed the Sterling Highway, and left the taste of burning spruce in all of our throats.
Out on Resurrection Bay: Looking back at Seward Harbor
Once on the water, the smoke diminished some, but we didn’t really escape it until we were out in the Gulf of Alaska.
To date, Seward had seen 2.25″ of rain, which is unheard of. They normally see 64″ in a year. The town of Homer had been hit even harder still, with only 1.15″ of rain this season. Needless to say, the Kenai Peninsula is seeing drought conditions.
The fishing was good, and at times great. There was no rain in the foreseeable forecast, so no one had rain jackets. The temps were in the 70’s F, and we all ended up fishing in short sleeves. Out of all my trips to Alaska’s coast to fish, this one may have been the most surreal.
The smoke comes in from a new fire started by lightning
I knew it before I even went outside the cabin the next morning. I had left a window open to experience the thunderstorm, and now I could smell the repercussions.
Sure enough, when I walked down the boardwalk to the lake, the hills across the water were barely visible due to the smoke. No doubt the lightning from the storm the previous night had started another wildfire. No where in Alaska is safe from the smoke this summer.
It was around noon when I heard the buzz of the planes coming in. Two single engine aircraft flew directly over me at a height of only a few hundred feet. Under one wing, in all capital letters, was the word FIRE.
For the next six hours, the two planes skirted the lake, landing in a bay on the far end on their floats, filled up their tanks on the run, then took off again in the direction that they had come. The fire must have been close, as the raven flies, because the interval between water fills was only 10 minutes.
I went back out to fish, but hesitated from crossing the lake. I had hit the trout fairly hard the evening before on the other side of the lake, but I didn’t think I could cross in 10 minutes in the canoe. I ended up fishing my side until evening, when the flights stopped.