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More than 300 Alaska fires keep thousands of responders busy

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 23, 2015

A recent surge in lightning-sparked fires has helped make this one of the busiest Junes in recent memory for firefighters in Alaska, involving close to 4,000 personnel from all of Alaska's wildfire crews and numerous crews from Outside.

With a week left, June has seen 309 wildfires flare statewide, "from one end of the Yukon to the other," said Sam Harrel, a spokesperson with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks.

The fires range from less than an acre to the 34,000-acre Chisana River 2 fire in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge.

This has been the busiest June since at least 2010, when 196 fires were sparked, according to figures provided by Harrel. So far this year, about 500 wildfires have been reported across the state, with more than half started by humans, though lightning-caused blazes are catching up.

Though the number of fires burning this year is high, the overall acreage remains relatively low: an estimated 316,000 acres have gone up so far this month.

By contrast, in June 2013, 833,000 acres burned, Harrel said. In June 2004, 216 fires burned 1.2 million acres.

That year marked the most acreage ever burned over an entire fire season -- which typically lasts from April through September -- when 696 fires covered 6.5 million acres.

Still, the number of fires this year, especially those near populated areas, means it's all hands on deck for the state's 20-man firefighting crews, including 37 Type II crews that largely hail from villages.

About 1,000 Alaskans – from wrench-turners to firemen to spokespeople -- are part of the nearly 4,000-person response. The rest, including hundreds that have arrived since the weekend, come from out of state, Harrel said.

The state's top-priority fire Tuesday afternoon was the lightning-ignited Rex Complex fires in the Interior -- the 14,300-acre Kobe fire and the 4,100-acre Fish Creek fire. The fires, not far from the communities of Clear and Anderson, had led to the evacuation of 25 people as of Tuesday, officials said.

The Kobe fire has destroyed six homes and two "minor" structures such as sheds.

Statewide, lightning has caused many of the new fires, with roughly 50 being added every day for the last four days.

Many are being caused by slow-moving thunderstorms that may drop more than a quarter-inch of rain, but not enough to prevent the lightning from causing blazes, said Sharon Alden, a meteorologist with the fire weather desk at the coordination center.

"With the very dry weather we've had this spring and summer, these thunderstorms are finding it easy to start fires," she said.

The next week's forecast, calling for some isolated showers in the state, doesn't offer much respite.

"We're not expecting widespread precipitation that will have a significant and broad influence on the fires we have out there now," she said.

Getting creative

The current firefighting action includes more than 400 fighting the high-priority Card Street fire on the Kenai Peninsula, where tacticians plan a large, controlled burn -- ignited from the air -- to trap the fire in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and keep it from destroying homes.

That is, if weather conditions permit. And in this case, that means waiting for the weather to become even warmer and drier, said Sarah Foster, a public information officer for the fire response management team.

When that happens, and when wind conditions are right, a helicopter responding to that 7,400-acre fire near the Skilak recreation area will drop "dragon eggs," pingpong-like balls filled with a combustible cocktail that erupt in flames.

With temperatures lower than the 80-degree heat seen last week, the human-caused Card Street fire south of the Sterling Highway has "laid down," she said early Tuesday. It's emitting campfire-like plumes of smoke that are smaller than the huge "organized" columns seen previously, said Foster.

But those pockets of heat still pose a danger to wooded areas that haven't thoroughly burned, such as swaths of spruce on the fire's southeastern flank near Skilak Lake's upper boat ramp.

There, the aerial drop would purposely torch 2,000 acres to prevent trees from alighting if embers fall. The burn will create a new buffer to corral the fire and reduce the need for ground crews that typically create fire breaks with chainsaws and bulldozers.

"We can put the fire where we want it without having to expose a firefighter to danger, so this is a really good tool to have," Foster said.

Fire officials will notify the public before the burn happens, including at a blog created by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The burn will send up large clouds of smoke south of the Sterling Highway.

Correction: The original June 2004 fire statistics were inaccurate in earlier verions of this story. In June 2004, 216 wildfires burned 1.2 million acres, not 225 fires burned 4.7 million acres.