Anchorage fire danger still high heading into weekend

casey.grove@adn.comJune 21, 2013 

Wildfire danger remains high in Anchorage this weekend with a ban on outdoor burning still in effect for the city despite clouds in the forecast.

That's because of recent prolonged hot and dry weather, expected gusting wind Saturday and Sunday, and another problem: fire crews are already dealing with burning acreage around Alaska.

Those mostly lightning-caused fires across the state have many firefighting aircraft, equipment and personnel occupied, said Anchorage municipal forester John See. They won't be as helpful to Anchorage where human-caused fires are the main threat, See said.

"In the municipality, one of our big problems are the backyard campfires," See said. "Anything that produces embers is a risk right now as dry as the fuels are."

Under the current burn ban, barbecuing is allowed. Backyard chefs should douse used charcoal with water, though, fire officials say. All burn permits are suspended until further notice, and anyone burning wood or brush is subject to a $75 fine, See said. If a fire spreads, damages other people's property and requires massive effort to put out, the person who set it could face criminal charges and risk having to pay twice the total amount of the cost, See said.

"That's the real hammer there: Nobody wants to be responsible for causing a fire that gets away and causes something like in Colorado recently and several hundred homes were destroyed," he said.

The "accidental ignition" fires that occur year round -- such as those that burn homes or vehicles -- can be the cause of wildfires in the summer, too, See said.

Motorists heading north on the Glenn Highway out of the city saw an example of a flaming vehicle catching brush on fire Wednesday night near a Peters Creek subdivision, said Fire Chief Virginia McMichael of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department. A tractor trailer rig carrying a telecommunications company's scrap wire and wooden spools caught fire alongside the highway, McMichael said.

It was enough to prompt wildfire-wary dispatchers to call for a state helicopter crew and other firetrucks -- including, in a twist, a brush-fire truck Chugiak had loaned to the state, McMichael said. There was a neighborhood and a middle school nearby, she said.

A roughly 10-foot-by-12-foot patch burned before the firefighters had it fully doused, McMichael said. Altogether the volunteers used about 16,000 gallons of water, she said. The fire was out before the state resources were needed, a dispatcher said.

"It was basically just some of the grass alongside the highway that was burning, and we put it out pretty quick," McMichael said. "And that was really our priority at that point when we arrived was knocking that down and then worrying about the trash fire because that would be a bigger disaster to have that take off."

See said fire danger will stay high without rain. According to the National Weather Service, there's a chance of rain Sunday. However, sun and high temperatures are expected to return by Tuesday. That could push the fire danger to extreme, See said.

"Going along with these burn bans and burning restrictions is very important to the safety of our residents," he said. "We want to keep each other safe and watch each other's back, I'd say."

The National Park Service has issued an open-fire ban in Katmai National Park, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve has banned campfires except in designated campfire rings "and warming fires in the event of hypothermia or other survival situations."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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