Are Wildfires in Anchorage the Result of Climate Change?

by Joshua Brown
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In Anchorage, Alaska, scientists are researching a wide flat area that can be used for medical evacuations. People are also discussing ways to create sirens like in the old days to alert people about big fires coming quickly. Also, hundreds of firefighters with urban background are practising wildland firefighting even though it’s still snowy outside.

Recent wildfires and the hottest day ever recorded in Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city, have people worrying that a hotter climate could lead to uncontrolled fires happening in cities like other places across America that are dry.

The danger is especially serious in the growing Anchorage Hillside area, since big and expensive houses are being built in steep hills and close to the woods. This issue gets even bigger because many of those places (where about 35,000 people live) have only one way in or out. If residents need to leave quickly, it could cause a traffic jam or prevent them from driving towards Anchorage at all.

The Fire Chief of Anchorage, Doug Schrage, gets very worried when it’s hot and dry outside. He believes that a big fire is the most dangerous thing for the city.

Schrage’s fire department is good at putting out fires in buildings in Anchorage, but as the city grows, housing is being built further away in places where nature and cities meet. This makes it hard to fight these fires because they are different than what the firefighters are used to, plus the city does not have enough firefighting equipment to get up some hilly roads that lead to houses built high on mountains.

The plan is to use all our available resources to control a small fire until help from the Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection arrives, Schrage said.

This spring, 360 firefighters in the city are learning how to fight fires, like how to use hoses to form a perimeter around the fire. The city is also asking people who own homes to look out for things that can help a fire spread like bushes or old trees, so they can get it cleared away before the fire gets too big. In one neighborhood with lots of hills, some people are trying to find places where helicopters can land and take people away if needed.

The small neighborhood with just one road in and out is talking about installing sirens to warn people who live around the city’s trees of any danger that might come from fires. They also want to store everyone’s name in a database so they can use it during an emergency.

Matt Moore, who had to evacuate his home because there was only one road, said: “It doesn’t sound nice, but it would be better than not doing anything – you might have a chance of living or dying.”

Cities where it often gets dry and there are more fires than usual, like California and Colorado, already have a lot of safety rules in place. Anchorage is joining these cities because global warming is also making wildfires more common there. It has even hit 90°F (32°C), which was the hottest temperature ever recorded for Anchorage! They’ve had to put out five pretty big fires in the last seven years, but nothing too serious happened.

This year, the U.S. is experiencing an El Nino season which means a bigger fire year and this is worrying scientists, says Brian Brettschneider from National Weather Service in Alaska. Last year, an area close to the size of Connecticut burned in fires all over the country.

Since 1950, 14 years have seen crazy forest fires covering over 4,687 square miles (which is like 3 million acres or 1.2 million hectares) in Alaska due to its short but very intense fire season. Half of these record-breaking seasons have happened since 2002 and the worst one was in 2004 when more than 10,156 square miles went up in flames.

In 2019, Moore saw smoke coming from a fire that was far away from his house nearby Anchorage. He quickly collected his pets and important papers before getting into his car. His wife had already left the area earlier. Moore drove 5 miles along the only road out of the small neighborhood (600 people live there) to get away from the flames. Later, he said they were able to control the fire.

The city and Schrage’s fire department are doing their best to keep the situation safe. To make sure no future fires occur, the city has cut down trees and brush that were close to neighborhoods. Anchorage also cleared some of the trees from parks and pathways.

Firefighters recently visited people’s homes to look for dangerous fire threats, like having too much wood stored too close to their house or having a lot of vegetation on their property. The goal is to keep the homes and communities safe even when the weather starts changing.

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