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Cool Alaska spring, slow start to wildfire season

Jerzy Shedlock
During a normal wildfire season across Alaska, about 1 million acres burn, often in sparsely populated parts of the state.
Alaska Fire Service photo

With snow still smothering large chunks of Alaska, the 2013 wildfire season is off to a sluggish start, and the state isn't likely to burst into flames anytime soon. According to a state interagency group, May has a lower-than-normal fire potential due to Alaska’s stubborn winter.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, which provides logistic support and prediction  services for a plethora of federal and state agencies involved in wildlife fire management, expects below-normal fire activity in May for about two-thirds of southern Alaska.

As of May 1, vegetation still was frozen across much of the state, and snow remains on the ground, even at low elevations. This year, April temperatures statewide were among the coldest in decades, the weather service reported Wednesday. The eastern Interior hasn’t experienced such lows since 1974. Northern Alaska, where the ground stays frozen much longer, traditionally has few fire problems in May.

The first weeks of May are forecast to be cooler than normal for most of Alaska. Eastern Alaska will experience the coolest temperatures, and, no surprise, rain will drench Southeast residents much of the month.

Typical summer: 1 million acres scorched

An average wildfire season is expected for the state from June to August, according to the coordination center. The 10-year average for acres burned during Alaska’s summer months sits at 1.7 million acres. During a normal season, about 1 million acres burn statewide, said coordination center meteorologist Heidi Strader in a podcast Friday.

But four years have exceeded that mark over the past decade, according to the coordination center.

“There are fewer large fires that tend to burn more acreage,” said Maggie Rogers, Division of Forestry information officer. “In general, they’re caused by lightning. So in a year when lightning is accompanied by precipitation, we may not have the fire starts like we have in other years when it’s hot and dry.”

The division handles fires in Southwest and Southcentral and employs 34 full-time fire staff, 183 seasonal wildland fire and resource technicians and three, 20-person, non-permanent firefighter crews, said Deputy Director Dean Brown.

During high fire danger and on actual fires, the division can hire thousands of emergency firefighters and commonly trains 3,000 of them annually, Brown said.

The Alaska Fire Service, the other major fire suppression entity in the state located at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, provide smokejumpers as well as additional crews.

Last year, a total of 416 fires burned 286,887 acres across the state, well below average. The previous fire season started with a warm and dry April, burning fewer than 12 acres by month’s end. A cool May, with precipitation at the end of the month, continued the slow start. Just 200 acres burned compared to 140,000 acres the same month in 2011.

The hot mess picked up in June 2012, but heavy rains -- particularly in the Interior -- kept the total acres burned at a modest 144,000. Lightning strikes sparked many of the June fires. The Alaska Lightning Detection Center recorded lightning strikes each day in June, with more than 23,000 strikes for the month, roughly twice the average.

Lightning-caused fires were also sparked north of the Alaska Range and south of the Brooks Range.

One of those strikes sparked the Dry Creek fire near Fairbanks on June 23. That fire, located on the flats south of the Tanana River, grew from 360 acres in mid-July to about 45,000 acres by the end of August.

The Alaska Fire Service, which fights fires in the northern portion of the state, battled the blaze for months. The fire reduced visibility in Fairbanks and air-quality alerts were issued as smoke wafted into town.

Scenario Fairbanks dreads

Fairbanks experienced a “worst-case scenario” in 2004, the most severe wildfire season in state history. Smoke from nearby fires enveloped the city during the summer.

In the Interior city of about 32,000, smoke from wood-burning stoves and furnaces is a common complaint. It can get trapped near the ground in strong temperature inversions, which linger in the winter when sub-zero air settles on the low-lying basin and warm air above keeps it from moving. The city’s yearly average measure of particulates per cubic meter is 35 micrograms. But when wildfire season is on, the city can be brought choking to its knees.

One of the single-hour air particulate measures during 2004's memorable fire season, for example, maxed out the Fairbanks Borough’s air quality meter, which stops at 997.54 micrograms per cubic meter. Translation: “The air was really, really, really bad,” said Cathy Cahill, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks department of chemistry and biochemistry.

“Visibility was under an eighth of a mile,” she said. “Residents were told to not exercise outside and keep air filters running in their homes ... It was a hunker down-type scenario.”

The borough set up clean air shelters at the hospital and public library, she added.

Although the north has little fire potential this month, warmer temperatures will boost the odds. Temperatures at Prudhoe Bay, located above the Arctic Circle, can reach the 60s and 70s multiple days each summer, according to the National Weather Service.

As snow melts statewide, fire activity will spread initially along populated corridors -- where human carelessness is most concentrated -- before shifting to remote areas as lightning season begins, Strader said.

“The rest of the summer will be normal with June as the busy month, near the solstice, and sporadic fire activity lasting until August,” she said. The coordination center is confident in its May outlook, but it’s difficult to pinpoint lightning intensity and precipitation as summer moves forward.

In Alaska’s recent history, 2004 and 2005 were big years for fires. The latter shifted from the slowest start to a season in the Division of Forestry’s history to a record for the number of acres burned. A total of 696 fires burned 6.52 million acres. 

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com