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Alaska enjoys mild wildfire season so far

Posted: June 21, 2012 - 12:05am

ANCHORAGE — Wildfires have burned hundreds of homes in Colorado and New Mexico but the nation’s largest state has enjoyed a relatively quiet firefighting season.

As of Wednesday, fewer than 69 square miles, or 44,062 acres, had burned in in 217 wildfires across Alaska, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks. No one fire has captured the state’s attention or even blown smoke from a wilderness area into a major community.

At this time last year, more than 412 square miles, or nearly 264,000 acres, had been scorched by 330 fires. Weather conditions have aligned to make 2012 relatively quiet so far, said coordination center meteorologist Heidi Strader.

“Definitely we’ve had a pattern, and it’s been true up here in the northern part of the state as well, temperatures were cooler throughout much of May and we did have a little more rain than normal,” she said.

Fire officials divide Alaska into three general regions: the panhandle of southeast Alaska, and the rest of the Alaska Range, which divides the rest of the state from the Interior.

The panhandle is mostly rainforest and wildfires are infrequent. The Alaska Range, which includes Mount McKinley, separates south-central Alaska and population centers in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna river valleys and the Kenai Peninsula from the Interior, which includes Fairbanks and dozens of villages on the Yukon River or its tributaries.

Favorable conditions began early. In May, the state is vulnerable after snow has melted but before vegetation has changed from dead grass to green vegetation. The “green-up” this year was short, Strader said. Snow was plentiful and a cold May kept it around longer.

“When the snow did leave and the grasses got a chance to grow, they started growing quickly,” she said. “So I think our green-up period was shorter, and it wasn’t a conducive weather pattern to fire activity, either. We had plenty of rain.”

Fire experts distinguish between lightning fires and human-caused fires. The lousy weather may have curbed the latter.

“Maybe the poorer weather kept people indoors more as well,” Strader said. “Certainly for south-central Alaska, human-caused ignitions are a bigger factor.”

Where burned acreage piles up, however, is in the vast Alaska wilderness where fires are caused by lightning, which can reach up to 54,000 degrees. In a typical year, storms by now have lightning but no moisture.

“This year it seemed like most of our showers were wet,” Strader said. “We kept getting rain each day, a little bit each day, and that kept our fuels from getting dry, so whether it be black spruce or grasses or hardwoods, everything just had a little more moisture in it.”

Alaska still has fires all over, including the tundra.

“We have fires in the west, we have fires in the southwest, and fires in the north to northeast, so our resources are actually quite widespread right now and spread fairly thin,” Strader said.

It’s also far too early to conclude that 2012 will be a good year for fighting fires.

Coordination center personnel monitor fire fuel conditions based on temperature, humidity, precipitation and wind speed. They feed numbers into a model that calculates how a wildfire would spread and how deep it might burn.

Fuels are dry in the Yukon Flats and other parts of northern Alaska.

“The only thing missing is an ignition key,” Strader said. “So if they start getting more lightning there, that could change things quickly.”

The state historically has been vulnerable throughout June and July. The 10-year average for June alone is 142 fires and 915,008 acres burned — a whopping 1,429 square miles.

The average fire season sees 2 million acres burned, or 3,125 square miles, but seasonal acreage can vary widely. Boosting the 10-year average was 2004, when 6.59 million acres, or nearly 10,300 square miles, burned.

“Large-scale atmospheric conditions are hard to predict, and there’s still a good chance we could have some warm, dry weather even in the next month here,” Strader said. “That could change the course of the fire season pretty fast.”

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