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After 3 million acres burn, cool, wet weather slows wildfire season

Cody Platz / Northwest Team 10
Clear Fire crews conduct a burnout operation earlier this month to protect a structure in the path of the fire. The controlled burn removes vegetation and other fuels to reduce the chances of a wildfire burning in the area.

Fire officials worry Aug-Sept dry spell could revive fires

The cool, rainy weather that set in last week over much of Alaska has dampened this year’s fire season, which was shaping up to be one of the worst in recorded history. And although state and federal agencies are sending some crews home, officials warn that the fires could come roaring back after a day or two of dry, warm weather.

Hot and dry weather earlier this summer created the perfect storm for wildfires that’ve burned nearly 3 million acres in Alaska this year, making it the sixth-worst fire season on record. In response, agencies have mobilized 2,000 firefighters and equipment from around the state and Outside. And they were about to raise the state’s fire-preparedness rating to its highest level.

“We’re at 4 now. Five is the top. Last week and the week before, we were planning level 5,” says Sam Harrel, a state Forestry Division spokesperson.

Ernest Prax / Alaska Division of Forestry
Firefighters assigned to the Chena River Fire set up portable water tanks for hoses they set up to douse flare-ups and hotspots. On Monday, fire officials declared the Chena River fire 100 percent contained.

Harrel says all that changed over the past week or so, after thunderstorms that had been spawning only dry lightning finally began to produce rain.

“Tomorrow morning, Alaska will be dropping to a preparedness level of 3,” he said in an interview Monday.

In response to the change in weather, officials reduced the fire-danger level in many areas and lifted the statewide emergency burn ban. And Harrel says some of the elite fire incident management teams brought up from the states are preparing to pack up and head home.

“Fire season is picking up in the Lower 48, and there is a demand for resources,” he said. “And so once they’re done with their assignment in Alaska, we are demobilizing them back to the Lower 48, or back to Canada, depending on where they’ve come from.”

That’s what happening with the Lime Complex, a series of 18 wildfires that’ve burned more than 865,000 acres in southwest Alaska. Harrel says Forestry officials also hope to soon take over management of the 38,000-acre Minto Lakes Fire, northwest of Fairbanks. And he says management of the 61,000-acre Middle Tanana Complex fires, burning between Salcha and Delta Junction, also is downsizing.

Alaska Division of Forestry
Firefighters assigned to the Bean Complex load gear aboard a river boat in preparation of redeploying to a different area. Recent rains have suppressed fire activity within the complex, located in the central Interior south of the Yukon River.

“The fires aren’t growing anymore,” he said, “and so the management team there has moved to a smaller group, from a type 2 incident management team to a type 3.”

The cool weather has slowed the 72,000-acre Clear Fire that’s burning west of Anderson. And Harrel says fire officials there want to take the opportunity to limit the fire’s growth.

“They’re still dealing with some active portions of line on that fire. And as crews are not needed on some of these other fires, we’re rerouting them to Clear.”

He says fire officials remain cautious, because they know it’s possible that hot and dry weather could return. He says that’s happened in fire seasons past that look a lot like this one.

“In our previous large-acreage years, that’s how those summers played-out,” he said. “We would have our typical lull this time of year, only to have it dry out in August and September.”

Harrel says the fire season is only half-over. And he says Forestry likely will remain busy suppressing high-priority wildfires well into the fall.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.