Fire Stories

Fire stories from the national parks highlight events, incidents, and the like, associated with fire and fuels management, as well as fire education, technology, partnerships, and more. Stories highlight work related to Department of the Interior initiatives as well as local and regional initiatives.

Fire, an Infrequent Visitor, Comes to the Copper River Basin

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

The Copper River Basin of Alaska, appropriately named after the 1900 discovery of copper in the Kennicott Valley, once teemed with mining activity. Now a quiet and remote area within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, it's been nearly a century since the last known large wildfires burned in the basin. The infrequent occurrence of wildland fire is largely due to the influence of maritime weather patterns on this region and incomplete historical and scientific records. Two fires were recorded in 1915, and now, nearly a century later, the Chakina Fire is clearing out some of the mature vegetation and beginning the cycle of renewal needed for the boreal forest to thrive.

In 1915, two fires burned in the Copper River Basin and likely created a smoky environment for people living in the area. The Sourdough Hill Fire-probably ignited by sparks from the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad-burned 384,000 acres from Chitina to the Kennicott River and from the Chitina River to the mountains to the north. The second fire of 1915 also burned near the Sourdough Hill Fire area. The Kennecott Fire was presumably set on a windy day by a man using oil-soaked rags. The fire burned all the timbered country between the Kennicott and Nizina Rivers and was reportedly set to provide fuelwood for sale at the Kennecott mine. About 64,000 acres were burned.

By comparison, the Chakina Fire-ignited by lightning on July 2, 2009-is about 3/4 the size of the Kennecott Fire. To date, over 50,000 acres have burned near the confluence of the Chakina, Chitina, and Nizina rivers. It appears that the fires of 1915 burned near the current Chakina Fire, however they have not intersected. Burning in black spruce and beetle killed white spruce from the past twenty years, the Chakina Fire consumes dead and down trees, beginning the cycle of forest regeneration.

Black spruce has semi-serotinous cones that need heat from a fire to open and release an abundance of seeds. Deciduous trees such as birch and aspen come back quickly after a fire and wildflowers, grasses, and sedges may grow from seeds and sprout from roots. Over time, shrubs and tree seedlings grow larger, shade grasses and offer good cover for many animals. Foods for wildlife including berries, seeds, buds and leaves will be plentiful for the next twenty-five years.

It is possible that other fires have burned in the area in the past 100 years. We don't yet know the full extent of the area's fire history and new discoveries are made each year-old fire records are re-found and placed in digital format, and park personnel note observations of burnt trees and differing vegetation in the surrounding area. As the record becomes more complete, a better picture of the fire history of the Copper River Basin emerges from the story written in the landscape.

Meanwhile in 2009, fire managers on the Chakina Fire balance the risk and benefits. The Copper River Basin, a fire dependent forest, is home to people living in McCarthy and developed areas along the McCarthy Road. Given the proximity of the Chakina Fire to residences, Chakina Fire managers are working with members of the community to make private property in the area fire resistant so that the Chakina Fire may continue the good work of fuel reduction in the area. As history has shown, it may be another century before fire again visits the Copper River Basin.

Contact: Mark Keogh, Public Information Officer
Phone: (907) 822-7223