Alaska wildfire season off to big start

Posted: Tuesday, June 01, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A hot, dry spell is turning much of Alaska's interior into a smoky inferno of wildfires.

It's still early in the fire season, and already crews on Monday were fighting or monitoring 87 active blazes.

The wildfires include one in eastern Alaska that forced the evacuation of residents from two communities and another southeast of Nenana that has topped 100,000 acres.

"We're having fire season early. That's the bottom line," said fire information officer Pete Buist, who is in his 42nd season watching fires, most of them in Alaska.

Fire managers say May's unprecedented fire behavior has been more in line with July conditions. They cite the presence of dry vegetation, wind, high temperatures and low humidity - all the ingredients needed for extreme conditions. Many of the state's fires were sparked by lightning, but others were human-caused.

Even before the season began, Buist said, some firefighters wondered if the interior's low snowfall would make for a busy summer.

Could be.

So far this year, 261 fires have burned about 260,000 acres statewide. Last year during the same period, 193 fires had burned less than 10,000 acres.

"Normally, we have a large number of fires in May, but they're small fires," Buist said.

Of particular concern are five fires, including the 8,600-acre Eagle Trail fire near the village of Tanacross and the Eagle subdivision, west of Tok. Evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes Saturday.

Erratic winds caused by a thunder cell contributed to the continued growth of the fire, but Buist said dozer lines protecting the two communities are holding well.

Another worrisome blaze is the Toklat fire, which has grown to more than 100,000 acres southeast of Nenana. Besides being the state's largest, the wildfire is significant because it is burning around lakes near homes and recreational cabins.

Near Delta Junction, the 14,000-acre Gilles Creek fire has led to a halt in operations of the Pogo gold mine.

Fire information spokesman Tom Lavagnino said the mine is about 50 miles away, but its electricity has been shut off as a safety precaution as crews build fire lines along a road that leads to the mine.

Lavagnino said fire managers have met with representatives of the Canadian company that runs the mine. He said the executives were supportive of the shutdown even though they told fire managers that each day represents $1 million in gold production.

"They understand it's safety first," he said. "They totally understand this is the nature of the beast."

Smoke from the fires has spread far beyond the flames.

The haze and charred-wood smell wasn't exactly what tourist Randy Stoneham of Denver or his family had in mind before they arrived in Fairbanks, the interior's largest city, to cap off an Alaska cruise, he said in a telephone interview from the Arctic Traveler's Gift Shop.

"It doesn't look like the clear, crisp Alaskan air I was hoping for," he said. "It's an annoyance for us. But it's not a deal breaker, or a vacation ruiner."

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