Despite a relatively low number of acres burning in Alaska wildfires this summer, resources are spread thin, a fire official said.
“We’re sort of making it by the skin of our teeth with the resources we have,” said Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry.
In total, about 36,615 acres of Alaska land has been burned by wildfires so far this year, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. Mowry said the number is low for peak fire season, although that could change at any time. Even with the low acreage on fire, Mowry said the department is pressed thin for staffing. Five teams from the Lower 48 arrived to Alaska to work for a month, but Mowry said they may return home sooner if conditions improve in Alaska or if conditions worsen in the Lower 48.
Crews from Outside routinely assist with wildfire suppression during Alaska’s peak season.
“The acreage is low, but for the last week and a half or two weeks, it’s been fairly busy with a lot of wildfires that we’ve had to contend with an initial attack around values around communities,” he said.
Although none of the wildfires have caused damage to towns or buildings, several have sprung up nearby.
Most wildfires have been caused by humans this year, but Mowry said that 54 caused by lightning have devoured the most acreage.
“They’re more remote,” Mowry said about lightning-caused fires. “A lot of times we’ll let them play their natural role because they don’t threaten anything and not all fires are bad. The boreal forest is dependent on wildfires in Alaska.”
Many lightning fires are not immediately discovered, Mowry said. With the Haystack Fire, which had spread to roughly 927 acres north of Fairbanks on Tuesday, reports of a lightning-caused fire came in days before the fire became apparent, he said.
The fire can start as just a smolder where lightning strikes, but “when conditions are right, warming up, drying up and maybe a little wind, and all of a sudden smoke will pop up and that fire could have been sitting there sleeping for four or five days,” Mowry said. “You don’t know about it until it puts out smoke.”
Crews became aware of the Haystack Fire on June 14. The fire was concerning because it was just outside a subdivision that Mowry said is home to roughly 300 people about 18 miles north of Fairbanks. The fire spread rapidly, Mowry said.
Nearly 260 people are working to control the blaze, said Terry Solomon, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team. By Tuesday, it was about 48% contained. Rain and overcast skies helped contain the fire and it has not grown in size for three consecutive days, Solomon said, though it’s too early to tell when the fire might be fully contained.
By Tuesday, crews had fully contained a nearby fire about 5 miles west of Circle a week earlier, Mowry said. The Little Albert Creek Fire had started by lightning and spread to about 536 acres.
Mowry said another large fire, the About Mountain Fire, reached about 80% containment Tuesday. The fire impacted about 2,135 acres south of McGrath near the Kuskokwim River. Wildland firefighters were using packrafts to reach remote areas of the blaze on Tuesday.
A lot of “small urban-interface fires” close to communities have also popped up in the last few weeks, Mowry said. Fire crews have been able to address many of those through aggressive aerial attacks.
A burn suspension remains in place in Fairbanks, and Mowry said several days of hot, windy weather could spark lightning spots that occurred during storms in the last few days in Interior Alaska. Cooler, wetter weather patterns have largely persisted in Southcentral Alaska, reducing the wildfire risk.
“We’re holding on to what we’ve got and we’re keeping our head out of water, but if we had another significant spike in activity, it would be really challenging,” Mowry said.