Alaska racked up one of the largest fire suppression bills and acres burned for this year’s wildfires, according to a new federal report.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 3.2 million acres burned during the summer fires that struck areas from the Kenai Peninsula to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the state’s Interior region. Fire suppression costs exceeded $184 million and 152 structures were destroyed.

For comparison, Northern California's fire suppression costs totaled more than $214 million with over 200,000 acres burned and a national high of 426 destroyed structures. The Southern area, which includes many states, had over 32 million acres burned with nearly $14 million in fire suppression costs and 133 destroyed structures.

The damages were not lost on U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

She held this year’s final committee hearing on the impact of the 2019 wildfires nationwide and the relationship those fires had with a reliable and resilient electric grid.

While most of the discussion centered around the California fires and prolonged power outages during the 90-minute hearing, Murkowski used opening remarks to bring Alaska’s situation into focus.

“In my home state of Alaska, some fires in the Mat-Su Valley north of Anchorage are believed to be connected to power line ignitions in a region that has some pretty high spruce bark beetle mortality,” she told the committee. “An investigation is still pending there, but a tree falling onto a distribution line is a suspected cause of the McKinley Fire this summer, which resulted in the loss of 56 homes."

She continued:

"The danger in Alaska, like elsewhere in the nation, is that power lines are necessarily located near homes and schools and businesses. That's just a fact. Climate change, drought, insect infestation and poor forest management have made forest landscapes more susceptible to fire, particularly in the west. As more people build homes in the wildland-urban interface or in dispersed forest communities, the chances for utility-related wildfires are sure to increase.”

In September, Chugach Electric Association, Inc. announced that customers could expect a rate increase in the coming months following the Swan Lake Fire.

The company says the fire damaged a transmission line connecting Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Project to the Chugach system. The lines connect Bradley Lake to Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Fairbanks.

Looking ahead, Murkowski told her colleagues and those testifying, “we must turn our attention to what can be done to harden our energy infrastructure and improve the resiliency of our grid in high fire-risk areas during these extreme weather conditions. This is a complex problem. It's going to require collaboration at all levels in partnership with the electric industry.”

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