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Despite heat, Alaska wildfires have been limited

Posted: August 19, 2013 - 12:00am

FAIRBANKS — This year may end up as a below-average wildfire season in Alaska despite the hot, dry conditions.

Only about 1.25 million acres have burned so far in 2013, and there’s rain in the forecast that could help bring the fire season to an end this year, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. The 10-year average is 1.4 million acres.

Officials pointed to a range of factors, including less lightning, faster responses from fire agencies and cooperating weather patterns that brought timely rainfall.

“Maybe some of it is just pure luck,” said Heidi Strader, a meteorologist for the Alaska Fire Service. “As dry as the fuels are this year, we’re lucky we haven’t burned two or three or four times what we’ve actually burned.”

While there have been nearly 600 wildfires this year, officials say a lack of large wildfires helped keep the acreage numbers low. After all, the 2004 season had about 700 wildfires and burned a record 6.65 million acres.

This summer, temperatures have reached 80 degrees or higher at Fairbanks International Airport on a record 36 days. The old record of 30 days was set in that challenging 2004 fire season.

Tom Kurth, a fire management officer with the state Division of Forestry in Fairbanks, said some of the credit has to go to firefighters. He said people with cellphones are able to notify officials of fires more quickly than they could nine years ago. He also said firefighting agencies are prepared to target blazes with air resources.

“We had as many as 13 retardant tankers and water scoopers here this year at one time,” he said. “Our crews are better prepared and more established.”

Alaska Fire Service meteorologist Sharon Alden said there have been a lot less lightning strikes this year than in the 2004 season, when the weather was ripe for more strikes.

Rainfall has been helpful, too, officials said. For example, after temperatures shot to the 80s at the end of May, the Fairbanks airport recorded three straight days of rain in the beginning of June that helped keep the fires under control.

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