It was a Monday afternoon in mid-May 2014, and Andy Loranger, manager of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, was meeting with 30 seasonal employees about to begin work in one of the busiest corners of Alaska. The Kenai Peninsula, also known as “Alaska’s Playground,” hosts nearly 1 million visitors a year, many of them drawn by the spectacular wildlife viewing and recreational opportunities on the refuge.
Just after 4 p.m., Loranger’s meeting was interrupted by a phone call. A refuge biologist had spotted a plume of smoke on the refuge just east of the community of Soldotna. The Funny River Fire, as it came to be called, would grow to almost 200,000 acres, the second largest ever recorded on the peninsula.
“A fire of this complexity and scale makes it hard to keep a foot in your day job,” Loranger said. “The fire started in close proximity to communities and under dry and windy conditions, and we supported our local and state partners in all efforts on the flanks of the fire where people, property and other values were at risk. This involved many refuge staff serving in fire management, law enforcement, public information and resource advisor roles as well as providing logistical support to firefighting efforts.”
Loranger and partners were still sorting through the impacts of the Funny River Fire this year when, on June 15, another fire erupted. The Card Street Fire quickly moved onto the refuge, threatening the popular Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, forcing closures and displacing recreationists and campers during the busy summer season. For the safety of visitors and firefighters, federal wildlife officers patrolled the area over the fire’s duration.
The Kenai Refuge was one of 11 national wildlife refuges in Alaska hit by fire this year. As of early August, approximately 1.5 million acres of refuge lands had burned across Kenai, Arctic, Innoko, Kanuti, Nowitna, Selawik, Tetlin, Togiak, Koyukuk, Yukon Flats and Yukon Delta refuges.
It’s part of a larger pattern as the state gets warmer and dryer, consistent with climate change models. Over the past two years, the fire season in Alaska started unusually early. And, as of early August, with several weeks in the 2015 fire season to go, slightly more than 5 million acres had burned in the state. The season was approaching the record set in 2004 of 6.6 million acres burned.
Twenty-four wildfires burned more than 300,000 acres at Yukon Delta Refuge alone. The vast network of lakes and rivers on the refuge includes the two largest rivers in Alaska, the Yukon and Kuskokwim, and provides thousands of miles of migration, spawning, and rearing habitat for 42 species of fish. The refuge is more water than land, but even here, the heavy fire season took precious time away from an already short field season.
“We had Chinook salmon telemetry, caribou and shorebird surveys disrupted by the fires, due to direct threat, poor visibility and bad air quality,” said refuge manager Neil Lalonde.
Not all of the wildfires warranted suppression. In fact, Alaska’s boreal forests benefit from fire. However, all fires require require monitoring, and millions of dollars have been spent by state and federal governments on fire response. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffs across all 11 affected refuges were impacted as they readjusted field schedules and increased coordination with the Alaska Fire Service and Alaska Division of Forestry. Looking at the climate trends, refuge staff is concerned about what the future holds.
“Even after much of the Kenai has burned,” Loranger said, “there’s still a lot of risk out there.”
Andrea Medeiros is a public affairs specialist and Sara Boario is assistant regional director for external affairs in the Alaska Region office in Anchorage.