Funny River Fire — Not So Funny

IMG_1630_-_Version_2[By Kat Haber]

Alaska is a great big, huge, massive, land-of-the-large place. Funny River is a lovely place in Alaska where our family has celebrated many a Memorial Day with friends fishing for the big salmon for which our Alaska rivers are famous. I live about an hour or so from there.

May 19th during the final moments of our village meeting of the Great March for Climate Action I happened to quickly check in on my cell to discover a message that the land surrounding my favorite Funny River had burned 44,000 acres. So I burst out in the High School gym where we had fortunately been able to seek refuge from the wild storm on Truchas Peaks, “Hey guys, Alaska is burning in May – 44,000 acres not so far from my home. This is serious. It’s time we make our message heard!”


Periodically this week, while not having heard from my family in Homer, Alaska, I’ve been wondering what’s happening with the progress of the fire and the firefighters who risk their lives everyday to save people and property. Reports have ranged from: it is 0% contained, to the size of Chicago, to crews are being recalled from the interior of Alaska and the lower 48 (that’s what we Alaskan’s call the continental United States.)

Today, it’s reported that a crew of 760 firefighters have successfully contained 60% of the fire curbing its growth to 194,000 acres, according to Command spokewoman Michelle Weston. Further she says the northern and western flanks are contained.” My home and Homer are to the south. Weston admits that the cost of $9.37 million to battle the burn will be borne by taxpayers and Fish and Wildlife Service.

So what does this have to do with climate change? The conditions that made it possible for such a massive fire to destroy so much was set by the warm winters that allowed spruce bark beetles to kill the mature spruce trees 2 decades ago. Essentially these forests in Alaska are disasters waiting to happen now that the trees remain as fuel for these massive forest fires. And as bad as it has been in Alaska, Colorado has more than 4.5 million acres of pine bark beetle kill from 2 bouts in the last 40 years.

This fire was such a big deal that it was NASA’s image of the day on May 19th.


NASA reports that you can see more clearly from space the trust spread of the fire where visible light photos from the ground are simply opaque with smoke. Fresh burns are dark brown, while the active fire area is orange. Patches of brown vegetation around the fire could be old burn scars, or pockets of beetle-killed trees.

The opaque white clouds are pyrocumulonimbus clouds, formed when superheated air rises above an intense fire. They’re small nightmares, thunderstorms that rain down hail and lightning below, while driving strong winds to fan the flames. Counter intuitively, the pyrocumulonimbus clouds are cooler than the smoke, the blue haze draping the landscape.



Image credit & read more: NASA/Earth Observatory

As the smoke rises into the higher atmosphere, it’s swept hundreds of kilometers across the Gulf of Alaska. It is negatively impacting air qualityfor the Kenai Peninsula and south-central Alaska. Smoke impacted air quality as far away as Anchorage and Homer.

Let’s also remember the cost to communities is greater than simply to human communities. Animals lose habitat and plants are wiped out entirely. Here wolf pups are rescued in Funny River Fire.

With the heat of the summer approaching, I commend to you a mindset of grounded optimism as we fight the fronts of climate denial and change on diverse, well-funded, and confusing fronts.

Kat speaks about 21st Century San Luis Valley energy vision adapting to climate change on Sunday, June 1, 2014 on the Great March for Climate Action. Let’s change this game!