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Lightning storms sparking blazes as Alaska fire season peaks with hot, dry conditions

Posted: May 31, 2011 - 8:49pm

ANCHORAGE — Alaska’s fire season is escalating, primarily in the state’s hot and dry interior, where lightning storms are sparking blazes, including one that struck close to riverside cabins.

Fire managers said 58 fires were burning in the state Tuesday, keeping busy crews from Alaska, Montana, Idaho and other areas.

“Right now, we’re at the peak of fire danger,” said Sharon Roesch, a spokeswoman for the state forestry division. She said there’s no major weather relief in sight.

Among the largest is a blaze about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, where conditions have been hazy and smoky for days from that and other fires.

The fire, covering nearly 30 square miles, is burning in windy conditions in remote terrain that’s largely unpopulated except for isolated cabins. More than 200 firefighters were tackling the blaze fed by volatile fuels such as black spruce trees, Roesch said.

To the north, another fire grew to just under one square mile. That blaze, sparked by lightning Monday, had threatened recreational cabins along the Chatanika River, but was spreading away from them, said forestry division spokesman Pete Buist. Two structures have been destroyed by the fire, but Buist didn’t know if they were cabins.

He said the head of the fire also was slowed when it reached a valley with steep sides and ice at the bottom.

The region has been hit by temperatures well into the 90s, he said.

“There have been some rain showers here and there,” Buist said. “It does help suppress fire behavior, but it also allows moisture that creates lightning.”

Altogether, there have been 262 fires in Alaska this year, with almost 162 square miles burned. That’s less than a third of the 551 square miles burned by this time last year, but the size of burns doesn’t tell the whole picture, Buist said.

Other factors include location, the threat of towns or villages and the impact of smoke on communities.

Some remote fires, in fact, are not suppressed, and others are just monitored. Even in areas where fires are allowed to burn, firefighters may be deployed to protect isolated structures or private properties.

“A small fire in close proximity to a town or village often requires more suppression activity than a larger fire in a more remote area,” Buist said.

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