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Rural Alaska

Early melt has officials worried about spring wildfires

  • Author: Dave Bendinger
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 4, 2014

An early spring melt-off has left much of Southwest Alaska primed for wildfires much earlier than usual.

"Right now we're basically calling it 'snow-free,'" said Assistant Fire Management Officer Hans Smith, who's based with the forestry department in McGrath. "We did a couple of flights last week out of the western area, from Iliamna down, from Crooked Creek down. It's been hot and dry since then, so what little snow remained has probably melted off."

If so, that's about two weeks earlier than an average year, according to Smith. Because this year's minimal snowpack has melted away sooner than the start of green-up, fuels like grasses and even trees are drying out significantly, increasing the potential for fires.

"Long story short, it's pretty prime for a fire to take off right now," said Smith.

On Tuesday, a low-pressure system moved briefly across parts of Southwest Alaska, bringing cooler temperatures and a quick dousing of rain. That, says Smith, is what fire managers hope for.

"A low-pressure system can knock down the fire danger considerably," he said. "It'll bring in clouds and moisture. That's exactly what we keep our fingers crossed for."

But the low-pressure system quickly gave way to another high, which was expected to bring sunshine and temperatures well into the 60s for the rest of the week. The McGrath office didn't feel the need to lower the elevated fire danger alert based on Tuesday morning's rain.

Firefighting assets are being brought on station earlier than usual. "We do have smokejumpers in the state right now, and some aerial assets available, and we're trying to get our helicopter here now, which is a couple weeks early for us."

Smith said the major concern is fires caused by human activity, as it's a little soon in the season to worry about lightning.

"In our 85 million acres from McGrath all the way down to Dutch Harbor, generally speaking we are most concerned about human-cause starts," said Smith. "Whether that comes from a dump in the village, which is fairly normal, or what we call 'duck hunter fires,' it's far more likely something like that will start a wildfire rather than lightning. We'd definitely like to get the message out to people traveling the river systems: please be extremely careful," he said.

State officials say to call 911 as soon as possible to report any wildfire. Firefighting assets can often be hours away from the scene.

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

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