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At Denali National Park, season of fire and ice roars in

Craig Medred
Patches of snow linger at Denali National Park and the lakes are still ice-covered. Just two weeks ago, snow slammed the area around the Black Bear Coffee House. Courtesy Becki Klauss

Mother Nature always finds something new to offer at Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve. This year, it's fire and ice.

No sooner did the snows of May turn to the rains of June than lightning set the land afire at the popular tourist attraction 240 miles north of Anchorage. The ice isn't even off the lakes yet, and the snow is only partially melted. But "fire season'' is underway.

"A lightning-ignited wildfire was discovered in the far western portion" of the park on Saturday, reported park service spokeswoman Kris Fister. "As of June 2, the North Swift Fork fire (as it is being called) was 920 acres.''

Most of what's burning is brush and grass, but the fire has scorched some spruce, too. Like most of the 6-million-acre park in the Alaska Range, the North Swift Fork area is remote. The nearest tourist facilities are at Wonder Lake about 50 miles to the northeast. Wonder Lake is near the end of the one and only road that knifes into the park.

Fire being a natural part of the park ecosystem, Fister said the plan is to let this one burn, at least temporarily. She did note, however, that the first fire of the season is unusual for Denali.

"The North Swift Fork fire is unique for several reasons,'' she said. "The fire started early in the season and is a pre-green-up fire. Snow just recently melted in the area, although a few patches remain. Ponds are still covered in ice, and vegetation is not green yet.''

Below freezing temperatures lingered into mid-May at Denali this year, playing havoc with the start of tourist season. Only a couple weeks later, however, temps were shooting into the 70s; lightning storms were crackling across the sky, and lingering snow was melting with abandon, causing a whole new set of problems.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com