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Experts predict mild wildfire season in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, April 26, 2009

FAIRBANKS - Fire forecasters for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center are predicting a rather mild wildfire season this summer.

However, Dave Curry, manager of the agency that coordinates firefighting efforts for the state, cautioned that predicting the potential for wildfires is not a perfect science. The predictions are based on the best modeling available. Those models are based on factors such as weather patterns, snow pack and drought.

AICC meteorologist Heidi Strader said all of those indicate a below-average fire season in Alaska this summer.

The agency predicts that the number of acres that will burn in Alaska this year is 335,000. In an average year, between 500,000 and 1.5 million acres burn.

Last summer, only about 106,000 acres burned in Alaska because of wildfires. It was the lowest number of acres burned since 1995, in large part due to cool, wet weather that persisted most of the summer.

Forecasters are predicting cooler temperatures and above-average precipitation in Alaska this summer, Strader said. She said it probably won't be as cold and wet as last summer, which ranked as the sixth-wettest on record in more than 100 years in Fairbanks.

"We're in a weak La Nina pattern right now, similar to what we were in last summer," Strader said. "This is a weaker version of it so it won't be as bad as last year but we're anticipating a slightly cooler, damper summer."

With more than 70 inches of snow, this winter's snowpack was the deepest in several years and has been slow in melting, Strader said.

"We've got some pretty good snow around the state this year," she said. "It's 100 percent of average or over 100 percent in many areas, and it seems to be sticking around."

Additionally, a national drought monitor shows there are no drought or abnormally dry areas across Alaska for the first time in several years.

Curry said the prediction could prove wrong.

"What it comes down to is the weather we get in the second half of May and in June, that's the determining factor," Curry said. "It only takes a few days of hot, dry weather to get the fire danger up there."

If that happens, "all it takes is one lightning storm and we're off to the races," Strader agreed.

Meteorologist Rick Thoman at the National Weather Service agreed. He said there is no correlation between winter snowpack and subsequent fire seasons.

Regardless of how much snow falls, the ground in Interior Alaska is saturated every year in late April after breakup, he said. The fire season is dictated by what happens in May, June and July, Thoman said.

Thoman pointed to the summer of 2004, when a record 6.2 million acres burned in Alaska, much of it in the Interior.

"May that year was very wet," he said. "We went into June with hardly any active fires. We had thunderstorms in early June and then it got hot and dry and we all know what happened."



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