Why Alaska’s Wildfire Season Was So Unusual

It’s not about how much burned—it’s about what burned.

An aerial shot of a fire burning in Alaskan tundra
Ryan McPherson / BLM Alaska Fire Service

America’s 2022 wildfire season is off to a relatively calm start, with one big exception: Alaska. Right now, the country overall sits above its 10-year average for annual acres burned, but more than half of that is from the 3 million acres that were scorched earlier this summer in the northernmost state.

To some degree, that’s not unusual. Fire season typically starts and ends earlier in Alaska than in the Lower 48, kicking off in late May and running through July. (Although who really knows what constitutes fire season for the continental U.S. anymore? Colorado logged its most destructive fire on record in the final days of December 2021.)

Despite the state’s icy reputation, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of acres typically roast each year. Alaska, it’s worth remembering, is very, very big. Enormously big. And ecologically diverse. The majority of the state is classified as boreal forest (very cold forest), which is evolutionarily designed to burn (and does so not uncommonly). This past fire season ranks just seventh in terms of total acres burned.

What’s most concerning to Rick Thoman, an Alaska climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center, is not how much burned, but what parts of the state burned. “We would not be talking if interior Alaska had burned 1.4 million acres,” he told me earlier this month. But “for southwest Alaska, there is absolutely nothing like this.”

If you stick out your thumb like you’re hitchhiking, then turn it upside down and stick out your pointer finger, your hand will be vaguely the shape of the state of Alaska. The southwest is the area between your thumb and pointer finger. This region isn’t just boreal forest. It’s also home to tundra—at times bone-chillingly cold and wet areas where trees don’t grow, even in summer. This specific tundra is wetland tundra, which sits on top of a layer of permafrost. And this summer, that tundra burned. This isn’t without historical precedent; the area’s tundra does burn infrequently. But certainly not like this—not at this rate. Southwest Alaska’s season was also big in non-tundra areas. In the Bristol Bay region, more area burned this summer (mostly in boreal forest) than had burned there in the entire time from 1950 to 2021 combined, Thoman said.

“It gets your attention to see those things happening and especially when they happen in ways that are really without precedent, at least in our modern experience,” Jeremy Littell, a research ecologist at the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center, told me.

One tundra fire came within just miles of the remote city of St. Mary’s, though no one was evacuated. Fires in other parts of the state did force evacuations. (Think evacuating communities in the American West is tricky? Try evacuating a town reachable only by plane.) More broadly, because the state is sparsely populated, wildfires don’t need to be fought with the same urgency as when they threaten structures or human lives. A lot of the time, they’re allowed to burn through. The damage is still being tallied, but for all 3 million acres burned, only two homes have been recorded as lost so far, Sam Harrel, an information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection, told me. However, that doesn’t mean Alaskans were spared from the negative side effects of fire. When that much burns, “you are putting a lot of burnt plant material in the air—a lot,” Thoman explained, noting that the air quality had suffered from the smoke.

At this point, the worst is probably over for Alaska, which has started to see those late summer rains and earlier nights. But fire season is now in full swing in the rest of the country. What does Alaska’s unusually intense fire season mean for the Lower 48?

Not much, experts told me. The two seasons aren’t correlated. Sometimes they line up; sometimes they don’t. Littell noted that in recent years they have tended to pull in opposite directions—a big fire year in Alaska would be a small year in the Lower 48—but not in a statistically sound or predictive way, meaning we can’t make forecasts based on it. And climate change further complicates things, Littell added.

Generally speaking, the two areas’ respective weather patterns aren’t connected, and fuel loads are different, Scott Rupp, a professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and the deputy director of the International Arctic Research Center, told me. Besides, no matter the conditions, fire tends to be caused by humans and lightning—two hard-to-predict variables.

Even if the seasons don’t correlate, they are linked in one big way: States share firefighting resources. Sometimes the same people manning the lines on the Alaskan tundra are the people who later defend the forests of California. This system used to work quite well, Thoman said. “Crews could come up here to help when needed early in the season, and Alaska crews could go down south when things wrapped up here,” he told me. “The problem is, in the Lower 48, the wildfire season is getting longer.” As warming temperatures cause more overlap between regional fire seasons, the country’s shared resources could be spread thin—especially in a bad fire year.

Carrie Bilbao, a representative for the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, confirms that the agency did send crews from the Lower 48 up to help fight Alaskan fires this summer. “But now that they’re getting the rains and they’re slowing down, they’re releasing those resources to the south,” she told me. One challenging scenario for the country would be big fires in multiple geographic areas threatening communities—as happened in 2020, when a lightning storm ignited several fires in Northern California all at once. (The smoke from these events memorably turned San Francisco skies orange for a day.)

Right now, that’s not a worry. NIFC measures national preparedness levels on a scale of one to five. A one means that the country is seeing very little wildfire and that very few firefighters are out there, working away to control a blaze. On the opposite end, a five means that dozens of fires are burning—and some big ones, at that—and that at least 14,000 firefighters are actively deployed trying to contain them. Right now, America is sitting calmly at level three. “Usually, by this time, we’re at four or five,” Bilbao said earlier this month (though, she notes, we never got above a three in 2019).

Jim Wallmann, a meteorologist for the NIFC’s Predictive Services—the group tasked with putting out seven-day and three-month fire outlooks—told me that the Lower 48’s fire season will probably peak in the next two to three weeks. “We’re not expecting Armageddon or anything like that,” he said. “We are going to be busy. But then things will gradually start to wind down.”

Ever the anxious California resident, I asked him at what point we (or really, I) can stop holding our (my) breath—and feel comfortable that the country is on pace for a pretty normal fire year. “We’re pretty close,” he said, adding that the next week will be crucial. Both lightning and high temperatures are forecasted. But fuels—the stuff on the ground that the fire actually burns—are in better shape this year than they have been for the past two years because of early-season rain. “If we get really bad, it’s going to be short-duration,” he explained.

All that’s left to do is wait—and hope that, unlike with Alaska, we can remember this year’s fire season in the Lower 48 as an ordinary one. In a time of constantly broken fire precedents, that’s about the best we can expect.