Smoke smothers Seward Peninsula and points north
Nomeites woke up to the stinging smell of freshly burned wood and the sight of dense fog that actually was smoke from two wildfires burning 430 miles south of Nome, near Lake Illiamna.
The National Weather Service issued a Dense Smoke Advisory in effect until Friday night, 10 p.m. The advisory includes Nome, White Mountain and Golovin. The weather service said in the statement that dense smoke reduced visibility to less than one mile and stated that air quality is poor. “Persons with respiratory illnesses should remain indoors to avoid inhaling smoke,” the statement says.
Norton Sound Health Corporation issued a statement saying “The best way to reduce your risk of inhaling smoke is to keep indoor air as clean as possible. Stay indoors if you can, with your windows and doors closed. People with respiratory illnesses should remain indoors to avoid inhaling smoke. If driving, please slow down, turn on head lights, and leave plenty of distance ahead of you.”
The best data on air quality comes from a PurpleAir air quality monitor located at Norton Sound Regional Hospital. The monitor measured a value of 750 on Friday morning around 9:10 a.m. The value has since dropped to 240 as of 4:30 pm on Friday. However, low visibility and the pungent smell of burned wood remains.
Per Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, once the air quality index value exceeds 300, the level of concern is elevated to hazardous and triggers a health warning of emergency conditions and everyone is more likely to be affected. However, for the lack of an official EPA monitor in the region, no agency has triggered a warning, except for the weather service statement which only listed their concern to people with respiratory illnesses and NSHC advising people to stay inside. NSHC also closed their operations regionwide, except for the ER, for the remainder of Friday, as did Kawerak.
Racheal Lee, NSHC’s Office of Environmental Health director cautions that the outdoor PurpleAir monitor NSHC uses at their facility is not 100 percent accurate but can be used as a guide for air quality conditions.
Rick Thoman, Alaska Climate Specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF explained that the smoke inundating the Seward Peninsula originates from the Pike Creek and the Koktuli River fires that merged into one big fire. He said he would’ve never dreamt that smoke from a fire so far away could cause such bad air quality. Thoman said that 50-mile long wall of fire north of Lake Illiamna was being pushed by strong southeast winds, resulting in a tremendous amount of land that burned last evening. A weakening weather front in the west created the southeast winds that fanned the fires and also blew the smoke in a straight line to the Seward Peninsula and further north. “What you are breathing in right now in Nome were living trees yesterday morning,” said Thoman on Friday afternoon. Satellite images showed a thick line of smoke at the site of the wildfires on Thursday, and smoke extending to northwest Alaska on Friday. Posts on social media show the thick, smokey haze in Nome, Teller, Wales, Diomede, Golovin. As Thoman was stunned about the thick smoke smothering Nome, 400-some miles away from the actual fire, he dug into data collections on comparable bad air quality in the region. He found that in July 31 and August 1, 1977 a wildfire that burned half a million acres on the Seward Peninsula caused similar poor air quality conditions, albeit the fire was much closer to Nome.
According to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center Wildland Fire dashboard, the Koktuli Fire is staffed and so far has burned 176,222 acres and the Pike Creek fire has consumed 82,471 acres as of 4:30 pm on Friday.
Thoman said there is rain on the radar for Nome, which will help knock the haze down, but the forecast continues to call for winds aloft from a south-easterly direction all weekend, with the potential to bring more haze from other fires to the region.
According to the wildland fire dashboard, there are currently 165 active fires burning in Alaska. This year’s fire season has already burned a record of 1,005,196 acres as of June 18,making it the earliest date in at least the last 32 years to exceed a million acres. Abnormally hot and dry weather, a result of climate changes, has helped to ignite fires.
Despite the obvious dense smoke in the region, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has not issued an air quality advisory for the northwestern region. On its Facebook page, it posts air quality advisories for Southcentral, Central, Eastern and Western Interior regions but not for the Norton Sound, Bering Strait or northern region.