WASILLA -- Exactly one week after Alaska's first wildfire of 2016 was reported near Delta Junction, the state Division of Forestry got its first Mat-Su call of the season.
A fire in an unattended burn barrel at a Meadow Lakes home off Pittman Road escaped into dry grass and ignited a nearby shed, destroying all the homeowner's tools, according to state fire officials. Matanuska-Susitna Borough crews from the West Lakes and Central Mat-Su fire departments were able to keep the flames from spreading to a home and held the fire to 1/10th of an acre.
This year's wildfire season is starting weeks earlier than what used to be considered normal. Low snow conditions have left Mat-Su and Southcentral facing another potentially disastrous fire season like that of 2015, officials warn.
"For me, I always would think an early season was when we started getting (fires) in mid-April," said Norm McDonald, state fire management officer for Mat-Su and McGrath. "And then over the last few years that's changed to mid-March and now the end of February."
McDonald said 2015 was the first time state fire crews responded to wildfires every month of the year -- even January, when heavy winds pushed debris burns out of control.
A new long-range fire weather forecast issued Tuesday projects warmer and drier than normal weather in March and April, he said. "It's looking very similar to last year."
The homeowner on Thunder Cloud Drive in Meadow Lakes on Monday told a state fire prevention technician that said he went inside with the fire burning in the barrel when he heard a loud "swoosh" as the wind picked up, the Forestry Division said. The fire escaped into dry grass, leaves and debris surrounding the barrel and leading to the shed. The homeowner then called 911 to report the fire.
Forestry fire officers issued the homeowner a written warning for having an inadequate fuel break and uncontrolled spread of a fire. He was also given a general burn permit and advised of safe and legal burning practices.
A general burn permit will be required starting April 1 for the use of all burn barrels. That's the first time barrels will fall under a burn permit. McDonald said the change reflects the number of wildfires sparked by burn barrels, especially in the spring. The permit requires a call to a recorded message about that day's fire conditions.