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Cooler, wetter weather helping firefighters

Posted: June 10, 2011 - 6:06am

ANCHORAGE — Hundreds of firefighters battling blazes in interior Alaska finally got a break Thursday with the arrival of cooler, wetter and less windy weather, but it likely won’t be enough to lessen the potential of dangerous wildfires getting started in coming days.

Interior Alaska continues to experience one of the driest springs on record. The extremely dry conditions coupled with windy weather prompted the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center to issue an advisory through next Wednesday about the potential for fires to get started and grow, especially in the central and eastern interior.

The driest areas are along the Tanana River Valley and Yukon Flats, the agency said.

The scattered rains the interior had been getting aren’t enough to make a difference, public information officer Pat Bening said. What is needed is a rain that gets things thoroughly wet, she said. Fire danger decreases when the “duff” layer — a 2- to 4-inch covering of soil and decomposing organic matter — gets a minimum of .07 inches of rain.

Spring’s extremely dry conditions also mean wildfires will burn hotter and will be harder to put out, Bening said.

The rain that was falling Thursday northwest of Fairbanks on the Hastings Fire was a blessing, fire spokesman Mike McMillan said. The change in weather will give firefighters a chance to catch up to the 37 square-mile fire burning along the Chatanika River. He said the plan is to continue to use bulldozers and firefighters to put in fire breaks with the goal of eventually containing the fire. Protecting structures remained a top priority.

McMillan said it would take three days of three-tenths of an inch of rain to make a real difference. He said it was possible the three-tenths minimum could be reached by the end of the day.

Then, firefighters would just need more of the same, he said.

“As it is now, it is just a blessing day to day to have this kind of weather persist over the fire area,” McMillan said.

Firefighters were again putting in fire line by hand and with bulldozers to create a break in the forest to try to prevent the fire from spreading. They were concentrating on the fire’s east, west and south perimeters.

The cooler, wetter weather affords firefighters the opportunity to catch up with a blaze “that has been growing every day,” McMillan said. The fire’s cause was being investigated.

“With this weather, the fire will only be creeping,” he said.

By Thursday, the lightning-caused East Volkmar Fire 25 miles northeast of Delta had grown to more than 80 square miles but was expected to spread little in the next day or so.

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