The largest April wildfire in Alaska in a quarter century is burning near Kwethluk

Aerial photo of a large fire burning in brown tundra
The Kwethluk Fire on April 22, 2022, when it was estimated at 9,693 acres. (Alaska Division of Forestry photo)

The largest April wildfire in Alaska in a quarter century is burning near the community of Kwethluk on dry tundra along the lower Kuskokwim River. The fire still is not threatening the community of Kwethluk or any Native allotments.

The Alaska Division of Forestry’s most recent estimate put the fire’s size at 9,693 acres.

The tundra fire is burning 25 miles southeast of Kwethluk, according to satellite imagery collected by the Alaska Division of Forestry on April 21. It’s spreading away from the community across brown tundra to the southwest.

“I do see it. I see smoke. It’s visible at times,” Kwethluk resident Boris Epchook said.

He said that a northerly and easterly wind has mostly kept that smoke away from the community. He could only smell smoke the first day of the fire, April 16. Otherwise, he said that it has not disturbed the village.

“It hasn’t really affected us,” Epchook said.

Climate specialist Rick Thoman said that the fire is the largest April wildfire in Alaska in 25 years. A variety of conditions have converged, making the area dry and ripe to burn.

Less snow than usual fell in the area this winter. It melted early, exposing the tundra. A steady wind has dried the vegetation, and hardly any precipitation has fallen since early March. Thoman said that with no rain and abundant sunshine, the tundra has remained brown and dry.

“It’s not like dry Aprils are unusual; this is the dry season. But typically you would expect there would still be enough snow around that, even if a fire got going, that it would, within yards, run into snow,” Thoman said.

The forestry division expects the fire to continue burning until it runs out of dry brush and grasses for fuel, or until it rains. A tiny bit of rain is forecast for this weekend, according to wunderground.com. Otherwise, there is no rain on the 10-day forecast.

The fire has been burning for at least seven days, since it was first reported to the division on April 16. At the time, they estimated the fire at 650 acres. It’s grown every day since, now reaching approximately 9,693 acres.

Alaska Division of Forestry spokesperson Kale Casey said that the fire is likely human caused. There has not been any recent lightning, and the area is a travel corridor for ATVs and snowmachines. The decision whether to investigate the cause of the fire will be up to the local land managers. In this case, that’s the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Casey said that because the fire is burning in a remote area and not threatening people or private property, an investigation is unlikely.

“We’re trying to not just be putting people in harm’s way. Any time you land a resource out in a remote area of Alaska, there’s potential for incidents with aviation having problems, with people themselves having animal encounters. So there’s a big picture here,” Casey said.

The forestry division is not taking any action to suppress the fire at this time. Casey encourages everyone in Alaska to prepare their property for fire season.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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