Alaska's Fire Environment: Not an Average Place is a compilation of excerpts from the keynote presentation given by Robert "Zeke" Ziel at the Albuquerque location of the 2019 Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference.
Alaska is nearly 18% of USA landmass. Its size is often unappreciated, as it’s frequently shown in whole without other states as reference. It stores about 1/3 of US carbon, and is the only place in the United States where permafrost exists, as both a value and a hazard. Upon first inspection, fire behavior manifest on this landscape may seem typical. I hope to persuade you that the range of variability from year to year leaves “typical” wanting as a descriptor. Like much of the boreal forest, fire in Alaska follows an understandable pattern – large stand replacement fires that are difficult to suppress on remote ground. Average depictions of Alaska fire seasons don’t represent fire’s impact very well, and there are few examples where the average tells our story. In the last 25 years, over half of Alaska’s fire disturbance came in the three much above average seasons of 2004, 2005, and 2015. In these exceptional years, hot and dry weather on a sufficient number of days encouraged fires to burn freely, producing the impressive acreage impact that history has shown to be possible. In each of those exceptional seasons, Alaska contributed more than half the area burned to United States totals. While this possibility is understood, Alaska fire managers anticipate each fire season with tremendous uncertainty. They prepare to protect dispersed values from unknown threats coming at a pace that cannot be planned for, compounded by a sense of impotence when these exceptional, extreme seasons come. Add to this the reality that few of the assessment tools that are commonplace in the western continental United States are available or effective in Alaska. Fire managers, regardless of role, have called on innovation and self-reliance to try to fill that gap. We’ve been mostly successful with this approach. But as the climate changes, these challenges test our resilience, call into question the choices that have served us in the past, and force us to consider completely new levels of fire disturbance and impact.