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Alaska's wildfire season starts slow, despite Southcentral burns

Alaska's 2017 wildfire season has been relatively tame so far, state fire officials said last week — but several recent Anchorage and Mat-Su wildfires have heightened firefighters' concerns about burn conditions in Southcentral Alaska.

Gov. Bill Walker on Friday proclaimed this week Wildland Fire Prevention and Preparedness Week, noting in a statement that "the trend in recent years has been for earlier and longer fire seasons."

An overview of the wildfire season so far from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center listed 86 wildfires that have burned just over 2,100 acres of land. One fire was caused by lightning, but the rest are believed to have been human-caused.

Alaska Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry said almost all of the land that has burned, nearly 2,000 acres, was from the Zane Hills fire in the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge last month. That Northwest Alaska fire was suspected to be sparked by either a snowmachine or an unattended campfire.

The real start of wildfire season for most of the state is likely a few weeks away, Mowry said.

"It's been sort of a slow start to the season thus far (in) part due to the snow we had this year," Mowry said. "We had a bit more snowpack — it took a little while for all that to melt off to expose all this dead grass, leaf litter."

That leaf litter can pose a threat to homes, however, once it dries out — something Mowry said Southcentral Alaska was already seeing as recently as last week.

"The (Southcentral) fire danger is very high," Mowry said. "People don't really think so, because they're out in their yard and they're walking through soggy wet grass, but anything that's dry can burn very quickly."

The first Southcentral wildfires to make news this year occurred on April 20, when a 2-acre fire near Indian briefly closed the Seward Highway south of Anchorage and Mat-Su firefighters fought four fires from Palmer to Big Lake. The Mat-Su fires were tracked to a backfiring vehicle — the same cause officials suspected in the Seward Highway fire.

On May 6, Mat-Su firefighters responded to a 1-acre blaze at a home outside of Palmer. According to the Division of Forestry's Facebook page, the fire began when "a charcoal grill was knocked over by the wind and the hot coals started a grass fire."

Fire officials say a 1-acre wildfire on Teresa Drive outside Palmer, on Saturday, May 6,2017, began when a charcoal grill overturned in high winds. (From Alaska Division of Forestry)

"The fire spread quickly in the windy conditions and the homeowner wasn't able to contain it," officials wrote. "Division of Forestry personnel arrived within seven minutes of the time the fire was reported and were able to knock it down and contain it before it burned the home down."

Ken Barkley, the Mat-Su Borough's deputy emergency services director, said dry conditions and underbrush in recent weeks led to high levels of fire danger, particularly when winds kicked up.

"The dangers we've seen are very fast-moving fires — they're kind of burning top-level fuels," Barkley said. "We've already had four structures threatened by them; we saved all of them, but if we hadn't gotten there with a fast response it could have had a very different outcome."

Last Monday saw a series of six wildfires spanning from Houston to Palmer, according to Barkley. Although each of those fires was small, less than 2 acres in size, they were a warning of the potential for future burns.

"Some were illegal burns and some were just escapement fires," Barkley said. "But people are gonna have to start paying attention and thinking about following the proper burn practices in place, and having water in place."

Barkley urged Alaskans to adhere to any burn suspensions. Staff at the division can take questions on burning at 907-356-5511; a map of burn restrictions statewide is posted on the division's website, along with a listing of regional burn permit hotlines for recorded updates.

"A burn permit does not give you carte blanche to burn," Barkley said. "You have to call each morning to verify that you can burn."

A wildfire along the Seward Highway on April 20, 2017, as seen from across Turnagain Arm near Hope. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

Tim Garbe, a battalion chief with the Anchorage Fire Department, said that the winter's heavy snowfall had reduced wildfire danger around the city.

AFD crews responded Wednesday afternoon to a 100-by-200-foot grass fire on the 6400 block of DeBarr Road, putting it out within a few minutes, but Garbe said the department hadn't taken any steps beyond the usual to ready itself for wildfire season.

"We've taken our normal preparations; all of our wildland gear has been dispersed as we normally do," Garbe said. "Really, we're just in our normal posture for this time of year."

At the state level, wildland firefighter crews are being trained and air assets are being positioned this month, Mowry said. Helicopters are already on contract in Kenai, the Mat-Su and Fairbanks, with Tok and Delta Junction coming online this week.

The federal Alaska Fire Service has about 20 smokejumpers ready for any immediate fire deployments, according to spokeswoman Beth Ipsen. A number of smokejumper transports and support aircraft to coordinate fire responses are also being prepared for the season.

How the state's wildfire outlook develops, however, is heavily dependent on the weather.

"For the rest of the season, that's up to Mother Nature," Mowry said. "It's all sort of based on the weather we get this month and next month, and how much lightning we get thrown at us."

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