Wildfire breaks record in North Slope tundra

Posted: Friday, September 28, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Alaska's largest wildfire of the year is now also the biggest tundra fire ever recorded on the North Slope.

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The blaze has covered more than 220,000 acres could continue to burn for several more weeks, fire authorities said.

The Anaktuvuk River Fire began with a lightning strike July 16 during an unusually warm, dry summer that has nurtured the flames.

"We've seen periods of rapid growth interspersed with periods of the fire doing almost nothing," said Mike Butteri, a field specialist with Alaska Fire Service.

The nearest population center is Anaktuvuk Pass, population 300, about 50 miles south of the fire. There is little risk of the fire coming toward the village, but it was inundated by smoke when the wind changed direction several weeks ago.

The wind shift also resulted in "choking smoke" making its way toward researchers working at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks' Toolik Field Station, according to station director Brian Barnes.

"It's a tremendous fire," he said. "It's visible from 50 miles away by its plumes, and it obscured a third of the northern sky."

The fire continues to show significant activity at its northern and southern perimeters, but authorities believe the blaze will go out by itself in the next few weeks as winter approaches.

"Fuel-wise, sure, there's plenty more tundra to burn," Butteri said. "Weather-wise, as we're getting closer to snowfall and colder weather, I don't see it lasting much longer."

It is possible for a tundra fire to sustain itself on peat beneath snow, but that's an unlikely scenario for this fire, Butteri said.

Since the area is mostly home to low, quick growing vegetation, there is little concern about major long-term changes to the environment, Butteri said. One exception is reindeer lichen, a key food source for caribou that can take decades to grow back.

The lack of lichen could drive caribou away from the area, said Perry Barboza, an associate professor of biology at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology and a caribou expert.

"Either they'll shift to something else or they'll have to go somewhere less benign and more exposed," he said.



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