Dry, windy weather elevates wildfire threat across Southwest Alaska

Dave BendingerBristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman

State officials are warning that fire weather conditions remain critical across Southwest Alaska and are urging the public to be extremely cautious.

"The main message is that this is a really bad time to be doing any outdoor burning," said Fire Management Officer Mike Roos in McGrath.

The red flag warnings from the National Weather Service and state forestry officials have prompted open burning bans in National Parks, the Lake and Peninsula and Bristol Bay boroughs, Dillingham, Aleknagik and other communities.

"We've been trying to get the word out, and the participation of these communities implementing the burn bans is extremely helpful," Roos said.

Much of Southwest Alaska has become something of a tinder box in the last two weeks. A high-pressure system has produced predominantly clear and sunny conditions, and it's hard to recall the last good rain.

Gusty northwest winds early last week pushed drier air into the mix, bringing the relative humidity down further.

"It's these dry, windy conditions and low humidities that have us concerned. Coupled with the dry grasses, trees and other fuels, we're really looking at critical fire danger right now," Roos said.

"There's really no immediate relief in sight as far as a weather change. It looks like this high-pressure system is going to stay in our area for a while."

Forecasters and forestry officials say the thunderstorm season typically begins near the end of May.

The lightning could touch off a number of fires, but those fires are often spread across the vast landscape and are not always a threat to nearby communities.

But until that lightning appears, officials like Roos continue to say that human activity poses the biggest threat.

"Human-caused fires remain our No. 1 concern," he said. "They often occur close to communities, and so really what we're talking about here is a danger to public safety. That's the message we're trying to get out."

The state has put substantial resources at the disposal of the McGrath office, which is responsible for mounting a response to any wildland fire across most of the southwest part of the state and down the Aleutian chain. A helicopter and smokejumper team have been staged in Port Alsworth, a hotshot crew in McGrath, with another hotshot crew in Hooper Bay on standby. Several of the McGrath firefightesr left Monday to support the wildland fire near Tyonek.

"As a general rule, we fight the fire that we have," Roos said. "So we send our resources to the greatest need. What that means is that resources across the state can get stretched pretty thin at times.

"We hope people understand how that can effect response times, and take extra precaution right now."

The weather forecast shows a possibility of rain by the middle of the week.

It will take "measurable" amounts of the much needed precipitation to bring down the fire danger, Roos said.

This story originally appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

Bristol Bay Times/ Dutch Harbor Fisherman