What’s going on with Alaska’s 17 wildfires?

A view of the smoke column from the north side of the Taixtsalda Hill Fire taken during Monday’s initial attack. (Photo by Tim Whitesell/Alaska Division of Forestry)

Wildfires are raging across many Western states, causing death, evacuations and massive efforts to contain the blazes. And though more than a dozen fires are burning in Alaska, the situation isn’t nearly as dire.

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For much of the summer, national news outlets have featured stories on the record-setting fire season scorching much of the Lower 48.

Amid that coverage, on Tuesday one of NPR’s newscasts mentioned a startling figure about Alaska.

“The National Interagency Fire Center says there are at least 106 large wildfires actively burning in the U.S.,” host Korva Coleman announced. “Alaska has the most, with 17.”

While that is technically true, there is an important caveat.

“I think the key thing to look at is that none of those fires are staffed,” Alaska Division of Forestry director Chris Maisch explained.

Most of the fires burning in Alaska currently are far out in wilderness, and not a threat to communities, life or property. There is no need to send out fire crews to try containing them. The majority of the fires were started by lightning, and in cases like these, officials keep track of them but otherwise let nature run its course.

“Alaska’s a bit different,” Maisch said, comparing the wildfire approach to how they are handled in other states. “We have a lot less population so we can let a lot of fires play the natural role that they do.”

According to Maisch, overall the state has seen about half the number of wildfires it gets in an average season, with significantly less acreage burned.

“It’s actually one of our lowest years in the last ten years,” Maisch added.

In fact, it is the third year in a row with a low fire season for the state. But Maisch cautions that according to the law of averages that could portend a summer more like what’s happening in California and other parts of the west in the near future.