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Hot, dry weather likely to generate more lightning-sparked wildfires

A map generated by shows this morning's wildfire activity around the state and the smoke that they generate.
A map generated by shows this morning's wildfire activity around the state and the smoke that they generate.

But shift in winds may push smoke from McDonald Fire away from Fairbanks, Salcha, meteorologist says

More hot, dry weather and scattered thunderstorms are forecast for this weekend around the Interior. But a change is in the wind should clear the air of all the wildfire smoke that’s been blanketing the Fairbanks area lately.

Now that it’s officially summer, firefighters in Alaska will likely be getting a lot busier.

“It looks like our fire season is gaining some momentum,” said Beth Ipsen, a spokesperson for the Alaska Fire Service. “We’ve had a few consecutive days with a thousand or more lightning strikes across Alaska. And that has generated more wildfires.”

Ipsen said Thursday that 10 new wildfires were reported Thursday, mainly in remote areas around the Interior. The agency responds quickly to fires burning near developed areas, like the 17-acre Checkerman Fire, near the intersection of the Elliott and Dalton highways north of Fairbanks. She says state Division of Forestry and Fire Protection dispatched eight smokejumpers and two water-scooper aircraft to that fire.

“They were able to get a handle on it,” she said, “and it’s just a matter of the smokejumpers mopping things up and demobilizing.”

The Alaska Fire Service also sent eight smokejumpers and two water-scoopers to the nearby Salvation Fire.

“The fire’s about five miles north of the Elliott Highway, right around milepost 102,” she said. “And it’s not far from the Tolovana Hot Springs Dome.”

Ipsen says the firefighters and scoopers have held that fire to about 10 acres. She says forecasts call for continued hot and dry weather, so AFS will bring in more resources to help quell the lightning-sparked wildfires, including several new ones in southwest Alaska.

“Every day it seems we’re ordering more firefighters,” she said. “By the end of (today), we should have 66 up here in Alaska from the Lower 48 helping out.”

Lightning-caused fires have burned more than 68,000 acres so far this season. About half of that is because of the 39,000-acre McDonald Fire, the state’s biggest fire, burning on military training land about 30 miles southeast of Fairbanks.

“And we’ve had about 121 human-caused fires that have accounted for just less than 3,000 acres statewide,” Ipsen said.

Those additional firefighters may soon be busy, based on the National Weather Service’s weekend forecast for the Interior.

“It looks like it’s going to be pretty beautiful on Saturday – mostly sunny, highs in the mid-70s and lows in the mid-50s,” said Schuyler Twombley, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Fairbanks office.

“And then Sunday will be our next chance of thunderstorms,” he said Thursday, “and we’re also going to be warming up a little bit too, with the high around the 80s.”

Twombley says a change in the weather later in the weekend may bring some relief from the wildfire smoke that’s made the air quality around Fairbanks moderately unhealthy over the past week.

“Our winds are going to shift and start coming out of the northeast,” he said, “so we anticipate that smoke is going to be barreling out of our area.”

But he says the wind-shift will push the smoke into other areas, including Tok and possibly Eagle.

Editor's note: Other wildfire and air-quality information is available through the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Air Quality Division and UAFsmoke.

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.