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.
One reason the Shovel Creek Fire has been such a persistent pain for firefighters and locals alike, is that much of the forested area surrounding Murphy Dome is saturated with black spruce. The resins in the black spruce makes the trees highly flammable; once flames hit the boughs, the flames race up the tree with amazing ferocity and speed. A wildfire can double in size very quickly. That is why black spruce has earned the nick-name: “Gasoline on a Stick”.
A firefighting crew on Old Murphy Dome Road, fighting the Shovel Creek Fire; Photo credit: AKFireInfo
The past few days have been brutal, air quality-wise. Fairbanks was way past double the unhealthy level of particulates in the air, and the Murphy Dome area was way past triple on Wednesday. The smoke has been bad enough for my UPS driver to show up wearing a dust mask this week.
Rain is on everyone’s mind, but the forecast is for more lightning than rain drops this coming weekend.
This season, 1.28 million acres have been burned by wildfires. That’s one Rhode Island, every 10 days.
For the first time since records have been kept, NOAA analysis has the July-June (2018-2019) average temperature for the entire state of Alaska at above freezing.
An evening walk, with friends, through Pioneer Park. It was smokey, but at least the flowers were perky, if the walkers were not.
Fairbanks temps are going to hit 90F again on Tuesday, with a solid 88 degrees for the following day. The Shovel Creek Fire has gone over 12,000 acres, with 15% containment. It was so smokey on Sunday, that there was no air support for the firefighters due to the fact that the pilots could not see anything on the ground to dump water and/or retardant.
Some relief could be coming into the area on Thursday, with a possibility of rain, and a drop in temps back to 80. Thunderstorms are said to be part of the equation, but lightning is something no one in the Interior wants to see right now.
The two main Fairbanks Fires as seen from space; Photo credit: NASA
NASA released a photo from one of their satellites the other day, showing the smoke from both the Shovel Creek and Nugget Creek fires. As of Monday morning, the Nugget Creek Fire had reached 6900 acres, and the Shovel Creek Fire at 10,000 acres, with zero percent containment.
Residents of 52 homes in two subdivisions have been told to evacuate, along with residents of 93 homes being told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Cabins and homes along the Chatanika River are also under threat. The area received .3″ of rain on Sunday evening, which isn’t much, but along with cooler temperatures, the firefighters were able to catch a small break. Hot, dry weather is back in the forecast, however.
Map of current wildfires across the state of Alaska; Map credit: blm.gov
The negative side effect of warm, dry weather in Alaska is that wildfires are bound to be close at hand. Interior residents were quickly reminded of that over the Solstice Weekend, when the area saw an unusually high level of lightning strikes. There are currently 341 wildfires in the state, with 17 of them being actively fought.
The Shovel Creek Fire viewed from Murphy Dome; Photo credit: Alaska Fire Information
We have several fires around the Fairbanks area, with two on peoples’ radar, but one is getting most of the attention and resources. The Shovel Creek Fire was started by lightning on the Solstice, and is located 3 miles north of Murphy Dome, and a mile south of the Chatanika River. It’s close to my neck of the woods, and I often hike Murphy Dome.
The current view climbing Murphy Dome Road; Photo credit: Alaska Fire Info
Unfortunately, all residents are discouraged from hiking Murphy Dome, as the peak is being used as a base camp for the fire suppression. Saturday the fire was at 200 acres, on Monday 400, and tonight it is estimated to be just under 1000 acres with zero percent contained. 170 fire fighting personnel, including smoke jumpers, dozer operators and support are working the Shovel Creek Fire. At the moment, 6 subdivisions are on alert to be ready to evacuate in case the fire grows and moved up the valley. To be honest, I don’t think any Alaskan who lives out towards the end of the road, are not ready to get a move on when we are in fire season. I will say that the Fairbanks North Star Borough has done a good job of keeping residents informed.
Warm, dry weather is going to continue in the Interior, with mid to upper 80’s in the forecast for this weekend.