Alaska refuge adopts new fire management to protect carbon stores

June 12, 2024

New fire management plan in Alaska’s Yukon Flats

The Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Interior Alaska is adopting a new fire management plan this summer.

As reported by Alaska Beacon, the refuge managers are aiming to protect the carbon stored in the boreal forest floor and the frozen soil beneath it.

This change in strategy moves 1.6 million acres from the “limited” protection category to the “modified” category, which prioritizes firefighting efforts to prevent carbon emissions.

The shift in firefighting strategy is intended to address a troubling trend in the world’s boreal forests.

These forests, traditionally carbon sinks, are increasingly becoming sources of climate-warming gases.

Refuge superintendent Jimmy Fox stated: “There’s not been any land manager or land management agency that has made the decision that I’ve made. It’s deemed a pretty radical idea. It’s controversial.”

Pilot project details

The pilot project will deploy smokejumpers to newly designated “modified” response areas within the refuge.

These smokejumpers will attempt to limit the spread of wildfires within 72 hours before being redeployed to higher-priority areas.

The project is set to run through early July, depending on fire conditions.

Fox collaborated with permafrost expert Torre Jorgensen to create the plan, which emphasizes areas with thaw-vulnerable yedoma permafrost.

Last year, the plan was not implemented due to the absence of applicable fires.

Fox has been advocating for firefighting to prevent carbon releases, citing new scientific findings about boreal wildfires.

The importance of boreal forests

Boreal forests are estimated to hold about a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon.

Historically, fires have been a natural part of the boreal forest cycle.

However, increased frequency and intensity of wildfires are now causing harm by burning the vegetative mat (duff) that insulates the permafrost.

“The thicker it is, the more it’s insulating the permafrost,” Fox explained.

Randi Jandt, an ecologist with the Alaska Wildfire Science Consortium, noted that the Yukon Flats firefighting strategy represents a significant shift.

“It’s a new concept for managers to even think of carbon as a value at risk,” she said.

The goal of preventing carbon emissions is seen as addressing global rather than local values.

Economic considerations

The economic feasibility of deploying firefighting resources in areas without immediate threats to people or property is a key question.

Researchers from the Woodwell Climate Research Center support the pilot project, arguing that it is cost-effective compared to other carbon reduction methods.

Their 2022 study in Science Advances found that increasing firefighting expenditures in Alaska by 1% reduced fire size by 0.21%, with the cost of avoiding a metric ton of carbon dioxide being $12.63.

Another study by Woodwell scientists and Tufts University colleagues projected future firefighting needs, suggesting that spending might need to increase five to ten times to prevent massive carbon emissions.

Despite these findings, Alaska currently receives significantly less wildfire funding than needed to control carbon emissions effectively.

Gwich’in traditional practices

The Gwich’in Council International and the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments advocate for reviving cultural burning practices to manage boreal wildfires and prevent excessive carbon emissions.

Ed Alexander, chair of the Gwich’in Council International, explained that controlled fires lit in open meadows during the spring can create breaks that limit the spread of summer fires.

“Full-out suppression, which is costly, is not desirable because it interferes with the natural cycle and is not great for forest health,” Alexander said.

Early season mitigation through cultural burning is seen as a low-cost, low-risk way to keep wildfires manageable, protecting both permafrost and human health.

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