Logging crews in the Tongass National Forest are working 3:30 a.m. shifts to avoid igniting blazes during Southeast Alaska's record heat and dry conditions.
The prolonged dry spell prompted the U.S. Forest Service last week to ban timber harvesting in the forest from noon to 8 p.m., when fire danger peaks because of low humidity and high temperatures.
Officials fear that sparks from chain saws and other logging equipment could set off a wildfire.
As a result, instead of starting at 7:30 a.m., most logging crews switched to "hoot owl" shifts beginning at 3:30 a.m.
Pat Joensuu, timber manager for Silver Bay Logging in Wrangell, said his cutters aren't happy about working four hours earlier than normal, but they understand the need.
"Oh, they mind," Joensuu said. "But it's part of the deal when you're in this business."
Besides the cutting restrictions, loggers must designate someone to stand fire watch from noon to 8 p.m., said Mike Curran, a state forester in Ketchikan.
The Alaska Division of Forestry also has imposed hour restrictions on state timber land in Southeast, Curran said.
Log hauling, loading and road-building is not subject to hoot-owl rules, so that work can continue throughout the day.
Fire danger throughout Southeast Alaska currently ranges from high to very high, according to the Forest Service.
The 17-million-acre Tongass is a temperate rain forest that is usually downright soggy. Average rainfall in Ketchikan, one of the bigger communities in the Tongass, is 155 inches a year. Locals joke that usually the only problem with fire in the Tongass is starting one.
But conditions this spring have been particularly hot and dry in the panhandle, home to Alaska's largest trees and much of the state's logging activity.
On Tuesday, officials prohibited open burning outside of campgrounds, smoking outside of vehicles or cleared areas, use of fireworks and operation of motors without spark arresters. The restrictions apply throughout the Tongass, from south of Ketchikan to north of Glacier Bay.
Last weekend, the Forest Service recorded a 101-degree reading on one of its remote weather stations, in the woods about 12 miles northwest of Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island, near Ketchikan, said Dexter H. Duehn, fire management officer.
Annette Island recorded 93 degrees on Saturday, a record for that community. And Hoonah experienced 89-degree weather that day, also a record, said Chris Maier, a Juneau-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
An extremely strong high-pressure ridge extending from the Pacific Northwest up into the eastern Interior of Alaska is creating the warm and dry conditions, he said. Forecasters expect it to continue through the middle of next week.
Owen Graham, head of the Alaska Forest Association, said hoot-owl rules shouldn't affect the volume of timber being harvested, and the restrictions make sense given current conditions.
Many Southeast residents say this spring has felt like a drought. Last Saturday was particularly tough for Ketchikan residents used to being pelted with sideways rain, Curran said.
"All people could do was crab about how hot it was," he said.
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