Rain brings respite to wildfire crews

Haze is so thick that many flights have been canceled in Fairbanks

Posted: Friday, August 07, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Rain is giving fire crews a break in fighting massive wildfires in Alaska's interior, but extreme smoky conditions persist.

Courtesy Of Alaska Division Of Forestry
Courtesy Of Alaska Division Of Forestry

The haze is so thick that most commercial flights have been canceled in Fairbanks and state troopers are urging motorists to avoid traveling on the Parks Highway if possible. Weather forecasters blamed some of the soupy atmosphere on fog mixed with smoke.

Pete Buist, a fire information officer, said Fairbanks has "serious smoke issues" because no matter what direction the wind blows, the town is downwind of large fires.

"You can't see your hand in front of your face," he said. "It's miserable."

The damp conditions are expected to give way to dry warm weather again, so crews were using the respite to strengthen fire protection lines. A cold front is expected to arrive Sunday, which could bring more rain, said Jim Brader, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fairbanks.

It's been a busy summer for fire crews, even in a state with a usually active fire season. There have been 496 wildfires and 4,200 square miles burned so far this year, with 79 fires currently active. There were 367 wildfires in the entire fire season last year and 162 square miles burned. The worst fire season was 2004, when more than 10,300 square miles burned, followed by 1957 with more than 7,800 square miles burned and 2005 with almost 7,200 square miles burned.

Volunteer crews from Delaware and Maryland are headed to Alaska to help battle wildfires.

A fire management team from New Mexico and Arizona took over one blaze called the Hardluck Creek Fire about 20 miles northwest of Fairbanks that is threatening about 35 structures, mostly recreational cabins. Buist said at least three structures have burned. The fire is listed at more than 1,000 acres, but managers say the blaze could be much larger with updated mapping.

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