ANCHORAGE - Alaska's biggest wildfire season in more than a decade is winding down, leaving ash and cash as the forests cool.
More than 2.2 million acres burned this summer, the highest acreage since 1990. It was the fifth most destructive fire season since record keeping began in 1955, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks.
But while a handful of buildings went up in flames and smoky skies irritated eyes and lungs from Fairbanks to Homer, the burning forests created hundreds of jobs and healthier forest ecosystems that soon could yield higher moose populations.
Fire officials are still trying to figure out why summer 2002 was such a scorcher, said Pat Houghton, intelligence officer with the Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks.
"We suspect two very unusual weather events," Houghton told the Anchorage Daily News. "Sometimes you can go three or four summers without seeing one of them."
First, a winter's worth of precipitation ran off more quickly than usual. Then a high-pressure zone descended out of the Arctic and sucked the moisture out of Interior Alaska.
"It was one of the strongest and driest we ever will see," he said, "and it got bigger and stronger every day."
More than 500 fires burned this summer. Four fires burned more than 100,000 acres each and three others topped the 200,000-acre mark.
"We don't usually get that many big fires," Houghton said.
Because most forests are fire-dependent ecosystems and need occasional burns to keep them healthy the fires are expected to improve habitat for a variety of wildlife.
"It's an ever-changing mosaic, a patchiness, that really is good," because it allows for varied wildlife, said Dale Haggstrom, the fire and habitat management coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The 209,000-acre Vinasale fire near McGrath was particularly welcome, said Rod Boertje, a Fish and Game biologist who concentrates on predator-prey relationships.
His studies show predators such as bears and wolves are less efficient moose hunters after forest fires clean out the vegetation in an area. McGrath-area moose populations have plummeted, and predation by bears and wolves is suspected as the primary cause.
If fires are essential to forest health, they have become a mainstay of the economic health of many rural Alaska communities, said Brigitta Windisch-Cole, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor.
"For many, it often represents the only job opportunity for people to earn cash," she said.