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As fires burn across Alaska, Outside firefighters called to assist

Jerzy Shedlock
More than 70 fires were burning in Alaska on June 22, 2013 -- including this blaze in the Lime Hills region of Southwest Alaska -- according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. Photo courtesy AICC/Cameron Winfrey

Wildfires continue to burn statewide, but the three state agencies tasked with battling Alaska’s remote blazes currently are watching and waiting. Firefighters are either using “point protection” to keep flames away from structures or simply letting fires in unpopulated areas run their course.

A total of 76 fires were burning in Alaska on Saturday, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. The center, which provides logistic and predictive services for state and federal agencies involved in wildfire management, reported clouds blanketed most of the Interior Friday, which brought cooler temperatures and some scattered rain. More than 4,300 lightning strikes were recorded statewide on Friday alone, the concentration of strikes landing north of the Brooks Range, a 2,700-mile mountain range that stretches from west to east across Alaska and into Canada’s Yukon Territory. That number was a little high -- the normal number of daily strikes around the state is between 2,000 and 3,000.

There are new fires igniting every day. In Alaska Fire Service protection areas, there were eight new fires recorded Saturday, most of which are designated under limited management option areas. Fire agencies have certain legal obligations, like protecting Alaska Native landmarks and other structures, said Pete Buist, AICC fire information officer. During limited suppression, or management, firefighters “let things go,” he said.

Fires burning in two Alaska national parks, the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve and the Noatak National Preserve, are being handled in a similar fashion, according to the Alaska National Park Service.

Fire in Alaska is a natural process. After a wildfire, cotton grass and willow re-sprout, which is beneficial to small, grazing animals. Animals adapted to life in the Arctic have coexisted with fires for thousands of years.

And the coexistence is much more apparent so far in summer 2013, with more fires expected to spark over the coming week. As of Saturday, the total number of acres burned has already surpassed last year’s total of 287,000 acres. The total number of acres burned is currently 344,000, Buist said Saturday afternoon.

The cooler weather is expected to last through the weekend with precipitation accompanying lightning. Next week, temperatures likely will be hot and dry again statewide, and given the predictions, fire managers anticipate more lightning-caused wildfires.

Hotshots to hotspots

Current fire conditions are by no means severe, as most of the blazes are burning in remote regions or uninhabited parklands. Still, Outside fire crews have flown to the state to offer assistance. 

Oregon firefighters have been in Alaska since the Bitter Creek fire, and the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which manages fires in Oregon and Washington, is flying five more crews to the state, said a NWCC spokesperson. She did not have an accurate count of the total number of crews sent to Alaska but said they are helping in multiple hotspots. 

Wildfire activity has yet to pick up in Oregon; their fire season generally occurs in July and August. This enables agencies like the Oregon Department of Forestry to send personnel all over the nation. Since early June, the department has sent 35 employees to four states, including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

Additional requests are coming in from Alaska, the Tilamook Headlight Herald reported.

The NWCC sends “firefighters wherever they’re needed,” the agency reported. “If fires pick up in our region, they won’t be sent back. They’re obligated to 14-day shifts to relieve other crews,” who work long hours. If a major fire ignites in Washington or Oregon, those states will request assistance from elsewhere, just like Alaska has done.

An area of concern

Alaska’s interagency center is focusing resources on the Stony River fire, as it is burning near Lime Village, a tiny community of 29 located on the Alaska Peninsula.

If the wind shifts, the fire could cause problems for nearby villages, Buist said. There is black on the ground within a half-mile of Lime Village, he said.

The Stony River fire, which a lightning strike started May 21, has blackened more than 131,000 acres. It is a significant number of acres, but firefighters are employing limited suppression to protect the village. The fire has damaged no structures, and three crews, or 70 personnel, continue to offer point protection.

Flaring up, burning out

One fire continues to burn in the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve; two fires reported Thursday already have been extinguished, according to a park representative.

The Chisana River fire along the border between the park and U.S. Fish and Wildlife-managed lands is expanding slowly. On Friday, rain helped slow the growth of the Chisana fire and curbed the spread of smoke; the fire has burned about 30,000 acres.

The park has prohibited campfires, except within designated campfire rings and for warming fires for survival situations. Violations of the park’s closure to personal fires can result into fines as large as $5,000.

Also on Friday, fire managers reported two additional fires in the park were out: one near Bruin Creek and another alongside Edge Creek. Both were caused by lightning, and they burned only 2.2 acres.

Meanwhile, lightning ignited multiple wildfires in Noatak National Preserve, located in northwest Alaska. Two fires were spotted during an Alaska Fire Service detection flight in the evening of June 20. The “Kavachurak Fire” is 250 acres and roughly 68 miles north of Kobuk village. 

But these fires are not threatening any structures, natural or cultural resources at this time. For now, it is a waiting game statewide. 

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com