5,000 lightning strikes ignite fires across Alaska

Lightning strikes on May 30 and 31, 2020. Courtesy Alaska Division of Forestry.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Around 5,000 lightning strikes caused at least 15 fires across Alaska over the weekend, marking a turning point in the Alaska wildfire season that state forestry leaders say is right on schedule.

"Prior to this weekend, we made it through Memorial Day weekend in part because we had some pretty good precipitation in Southcentral Alaska. Made is through unscathed, sort of," Tim Mowry, information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry's State Fire Operations said. "With lightning in the picture now, it's sort of a whole new ballgame."

Mowry says that the first lightning-caused fires typically occur in the last week of May or early June.

"We transition from that human factor to lightning factor, and that we sort of what we're in now. I saw a graph the other day last week where we get 90% of our lightning in like a 70 day period, and that started last week," Mowry said. "It's really through June where we're really anticipating lightning, and as always in fire, that's dependant on the weather and what kind of things line up in terms of thunderstorms and lightning and whether it's dry lightning or wet lightning."

Mowry says precipitation like part of Southcentral recently experienced can keep lighter fuels like grasses wet and not prone to burning for a few days, but that those fuels can dry out quickly if there is warm, dry weather. The duff layer is also becoming drier deeper into the ground, Mowry said, which is expected to continue.

Before the fire season, remnants of the 2019 Deshka Landing fire were seen smoldering as "hot spots," and the Division of Forestry expected those to be more common this year after last year's very dry fire season.

Mowry said that fire technicians from the Division of Forestry in Palmer recently checked the hot spots and did not find heat or anything of concern.

"We have not seen much in terms of holdover fires right now," Mowry said. "Keep in mind, we have not really had any long, extended hot dry weather. It's been dry but we haven't had that heat to go with it."

Mowry said the combination of hot, dry weather and wind is usually what needs to be in place to cause flare-ups from holdover fires.

"We haven't seen that yet thankfully. We're still anticipating it. We just hit June 1 so it's still sort of early in the season," Mowry said.

So far Alaska has not needed to call for crews from the Lower 48 to help with any of the fires that burned in the state. However, if that time comes, concerns over traveling caused by COVID-19 will make getting those resources more difficult.

Mowry says the expected increase in lightning, together with the anticipated difficulty of securing outside assistance makes it especially important that people be responsible when burning campfires or brush this summer.

"Mother Nature will give us plenty to do here over the next month with lightning-caused fires," Mowry said. "The fewer human-caused fires have, it makes it easier to cope with."

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