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More than a million acres burn for first time since 2010

Posted: September 9, 2013 - 12:00am

Alaska’s 2013 fire season has been active, but it hasn’t materialized into what some feared in spite of ripe fire conditions much of this summer.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, or AICC, a partnership of state and federal resource management agencies, reported that 595 fires had burned approximately 1.3 million acres across the state as of Sept 3.

During a cool and wet 2012 fire season, 416 fires burned 286,000 acres. The last year that more than 1 million acres burned was 2010, when 688 fires moved across more than 1.1 million acres.

Those numbers are still a far cry from 2004 when 701 fires burned nearly 6.6 million acres. The summer of 2004 was the warmest and third-driest fire season on record in Alaska, according to the National Weather Service. It also had the most recorded lightning strikes, which were blamed for starting 275 of the fires that year.

On five days in 2004, fires burned more than 200,000 acres in a single day and on July 17, 2004, more than 2,700 firefighters were spread across the state, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Nearly 1,500 personnel were called up from the Lower 48.

As of Sept. 3 of this year, 49 fires were actively burning in Alaska. The largest was the Stuart Creek 2 fire, which had burned 87,154 acres west of Fairbanks.

Through the end of July, fighting the Stuart Creek 2 fire, which started in mid-June, was estimated to have cost around $19 million.

As of Sept. 3, costs related to fighting Stuart Creek 2 have risen to approximately $21 million.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski submitted a report to the Defense Appropriations committee Aug. 1 authorizing a Congressional inquiry into the cause of the Stuart Creek blaze. According to a release from her office, Murkowski demanded the Army explain why it went forward with live-fire exercises that are believed to have started the fire despite warnings from the Alaska Fire Service that the drills should have been postponed due to high fire danger conditions.

Through Aug. 30, Fairbanks — in the middle of Alaska’s wildfire belt — had received 2 inches of rain for the month. That was slightly more than normal, but the 3.46 inches of rain that fell on the city since June 1 was still 1.95 inches below normal for the timeframe.

Year-to-date, the city was 1.77 inches below the average 7.57 inches of precipitation it gets by late August.

While still below average for the summer, the August precipitation totals are an improvement over June, which started the fire season hot and dry. Fairbanks’ mean temperature for June was 66.8 degrees Fahrenheit — 6.4 degrees above the average for the month. In addition, just 0.4 inches of rain fell on the city during the month, or 31 percent of the average 1.4 inches, making it the 10th driest June in Fairbanks in the last 101 years, according to the Alaska Climate Research Center.

July’s precipitation improved slightly in Fairbanks, with just over an inch falling, but it was still only 47 percent of the 2.16-inch monthly average. That made for the 17th driest August since 1912 in the city.

State Division of Forestry spokeswoman Maggie Rogers said fire officials did not see the usual number of human-triggered fires early in the season because of the late spring statewide. Late-summer fires are often started by lightning, she said.

“What was really unique this year was the delay in melting and drying,” Rogers said. “It’s been a season without transitions.”

Other large fires burning in early September included the 67,200-acre Mississippi fire located just west of Delta Junction along the Richardson Highway. It’s estimated more than $5 million has been spent fighting the Mississippi fire that was discovered May 30.

The Beaver Log Lakes fire west of Healy had burned 64,500 acres as of Sept. 3 at a cost of more than $1.8 million, AICC reported. It was discovered June 22.

The Prospect Creek blaze has burned 64,000 acres between Bettles and the Dalton Highway near highway mile marker 135 since June 20. An attributable cost to the Prospect Creek fire was unavailable.

Late this season Alaska crews have begun to head south to assist firefighting teams in the Lower 48 during another busy season there. On Aug. 26, five state and federal Alaska fire crews departed for northern California and on the 29th, five more crews left Alaska for other western states.

The 2013 fire season in the greater U.S. has been a tragic one with 30 wildland firefighters being killed on the job.

On Aug. 20 the Department of the Interior reported that roughly 32,000 fires had burned more than 3.5 million acres so far this year across the western United States. The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group also increased the national fire Preparedness Level to five; the highest level and the fifth time in 10 years it done so.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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