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Alaska wildlife refuge changing wildfire strategy

Yereth Rosen
Alaska Beacon

Baked with the around-the-clock summer sunlight and regularly peppered with lightning strikes, the Yukon Flats region in eastern Interior Alaska is regularly set ablaze with fires that are considered part of the natural forest cycle. Standard practice is to let them burn out on their own, unless they threaten people, their homes or other economically valuable property.

That is set to change this summer.

At the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, managers are experimenting with a fire plan aimed at protecting the sequestered carbon on the boreal forest floor and in the frozen soil below. In the 8-million-acre refuge, 1.6 million acres are now moved from the “limited” protection category, the lowest priority firefighting priority and usually applied to fires that are merely monitored, to the “modified” category, the next-higher priority.

The point of the limited firefighting is to put the brakes on what has been a troubling trend in the world’s boreal forests: a transition from their function as sinks that absorb atmospheric carbon into sources that pump more climate-warming gases into the air.

If carried out, the practice of fighting fires to prevent carbon emissions would be a first not just for Alaska but likely for the world’s boreal forests, said Jimmy Fox, the refuge’s superintendent.

“There’s not been any land manager or land management agency that has made the decision that I’ve made,” Fox said. “It’s deemed a pretty radical idea. It’s controversial.”

Even if it is radical, the plan is also modest.

If a wildfire breaks out on any of those newly designated “modified” response areas of the refuge, the plan calls for smokejumpers to be dispatched to try to limit the spread. It will not be the large-scale effort that is typically mounted in areas assigned higher priorities for firefighting, Fox said. Rather than stay as part of a big firefighting army, smokejumpers would be given 72 hours to contain the fire, and then they would be pulled out to work at higher-priority sites. The plan would be in effect only through early July, depending on the way events unfold, Fox said.

The plan, created with the help of Fairbanks-based permafrost expert Torre Jorgensen, emphasizes the areas of the refuge with the most thaw-vulnerable sites: those with yedoma, the term for permafrost that is at least 50% ice. It would have been used last year, Fox said, but there were no applicable refuge fires in 2023.

Fox has been among those pushing for firefighting to prevent carbon releases from the boreal forest, and he admits that he has “a bee in my bonnet for climate change.” The Yukon Flats suppression plan is justified by new scientific findings about boreal wildfires, he said.

“There’s more and more research coming out making it so clear that there’s so much at stake here,” he said.

Vast stores of carbon

The world’s boreal forests are estimated to hold about a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon. While fires have been part of the boreal forest cycle for millennia, increased frequency and intensity means that wildfires that used to be considered normal and even beneficial can now cause harm. The most intense fires are burning duff, the soft mat of vegetative material on the forest floor, and — more worryingly — expose and thaw the permafrost the duff would have protected.

“The thicker it is, the more it’s insulating the permafrost,” he said. But when the duff burns, the insulation is gone.

Fire experts will be paying a lot of attention to what happens with this pilot project in the Yukon Flats, said Randi Jandt, an ecologist with the Alaska Wildfire Science Consortium.

The standard practice up to now, Jandt said, is for wildland firefighting to be focused on protecting resources of local and regional value. In the Lower 48, that includes timber, with a goal of protecting local or regional economic values, she said. The Yukon Flats firefighting goal represents a significant shift, she said.

“It’s a new concept for managers to even think of carbon as a value at risk,” she said. For the most part, preventing carbon emissions is about addressing global values, not local or regional values, she said. “They would be doing it to help the whole planet, and that’s different.”

A big question concerns cost. Is it worthwhile to deploy firefighting resources in areas where people and property are not at risk?

Researchers from the Woodwell Climate Research Center, who helped craft the Yukon Flats pilot project, say it is. They have penciled out the added fire-response costs and, for comparison, the costs of other actions that would reduce carbon emissions.

In a 2022 study published in the journal Science Advances, the Woodwell researchers used data from Alaska firefighting efforts mounted between 2007 and 2015 in calculations that found that increasing expenditures in Alaska by 1% reduced boreal fire size by 0.21% and that the direct firefighting cost of avoiding release of a metric ton of carbon dioxide was $12.63.

That compares favorably to the costs of reducing carbon emissions through solar arrays and offshore wind energy, the study found. Not taking the extra fire-suppression action, in contrast, would make it more difficult for the world to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the scientists found.

Boosting suppression to limit Alaska boreal wildfires to their historic levels would avoid the release of 0.89 gigatons to 3.87 gigatons of carbon dioxide through 2050, at an average annual response cost of $696 million per year, on average, according to the Woodwell scientists’ calculations.

A related study, by some of the same Woodwell scientists and colleagues from Tufts University, uses Alaska data to project boreal firefighting needs through the end of the century. To prevent massive carbon emission from boreal forests, spending on firefighting might have to be five to 10 times as much as it is now, said the study, published in 2022 in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The cost may be worthwhile, said the study: “When the alternative is skyrocketing carbon emissions with a social cost of billions of dollars per year, increased fire management may be a prudent and essential investment in the years to come.”

For now, Alaska gets considerably less wildfire funding than what the scientists consider necessary to control carbon emissions.

Despite holding a fifth of the nation’s land mass and producing about half of the nation’s wildfire emissions, Alaska gets only a tiny sliver of annual federal wildfire funding, scientists and fire managers say.

Annual federal firefighting costs averaged over $2.8 billion from 2018 to 2022, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In comparison, in 2019 – a year with the long-burning Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula and other serious wildfires – about $300 million was provided from both the state and federal government for firefighting, according to experts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

While the refuge is gearing up for a new type of fire management to stem climate change, Gwich’in tribal members want to achieve the same goal by reviving a tradition.

The Gwich’in Council International, which represents Gwich’in Athabascan people in Alaska and Canada, and the Yukon Flats-based Council of Athabascan Tribal Governmentsare promoting cultural burning, a practice that is, in various forms, part of Indigenous traditions around North America.

The Gwich’in practice involves controlled fires lit in open meadows areas during the spring, when exposed plants are dry but the ground below them remains snowy and frozen, said Ed Alexander of Fort Yukon, the Gwich’in Council International’s chair. As carried out in the past, the practice created breaks that limited the spread of big summer fires once they arrived.

Full-out suppression, which is costly, is not desirable because it interferes with the natural cycle and is “not great for forest health,” Alexander said. But the early season mitigation, as the Gwich’in International Council is advocating, is seen as a low-cost, low-risk way to keep wildfires at manageable levels once the summer heat and lightning strikes arrive, he said.

“In order to have that situation here, humans need to be involved in our landscape like we have for thousands of years,” Alexander said. Keeping wildfires at manageable levels will do more than protect permafrost and avoid excessive carbon emissions, he said. It might also protect human health by keeping the air cleaner, he said. The hope is that “we don’t get late-season fires where you end up with smoke filling up Fairbanks from July through the end of August,” he said.

Wildfires have yet to arrive this summer in the Yukon Flats region. They usually break out there in late June, Fox said.

So far, the biggest Alaska wildfire this season is a tundra burn in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of Western Alaska. That fire was estimated at 1,890 acres as of Sunday.

In Canada, which had a record wildfire season last year, several fires are burning in the boreal region. One fire in northern British Columbia prompted evacuations last month.

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