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Warm weather fuels early fires in Alaska

After setting a record last year, Alaska’s wildfire season got off to an early start with more than 4,800 acres of spruce forest ablaze due to unseasonably warm weather.
This fire northeast of Homer, Alaska, started last week — the earliest start to the region's wildfire season in recent memory.
This fire northeast of Homer, Alaska, started last week — the earliest start to the region's wildfire season in recent memory.Cary James / AP
/ Source: news services

After a record set last year, Alaska’s wildfire season has gotten off to an early start with more than 4,800 acres of spruce forest ablaze, and authorities warned low water levels and high temperatures could mean a tough fire season ahead for the western United States.

The earliest major fire in recent memory on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage started last week when a downed power line ignited a patch of sun-dried dead grasses near the seaside town of Homer.

Although snowfall over the winter was about average in the area, the snow pack melted quickly and, over recent days, the site was baked by record-setting warm weather.

“When the sun comes out in the afternoon and dries the fuel, it’s ready to burn,” said John See, a regional fire management officer for the Division of Forestry.

The fire has also been fueled by vast amounts of beetle-killed spruce, said Kris Eriksen, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Scientists have tied the abundance of beetle-killed trees to a warming climate, which has also been blamed for the increasing frequency of wildfires across the United States in recent years.

Compounding the problem in Alaska and other states is the lack of National Guard troops, who are usually directed to fight fires but have been deployed to Iraq.

Washington state declared a drought emergency in March, saying that unusually low winter snowfalls in the Cascades left rivers on both sides of the mountain range flowing at record-low levels.

Curve ball from Mother Nature
In Alaska, other wildfires broke out in a few other parts as well.

“Mother Nature is throwing us a curve this year,” See said. “We’re getting more challenging fires like what we usually would be seeing in a few weeks.”

“This is the time of year a lot of crews are finishing up their training and safety refreshers, so it’s hard to put together all the resources,” added Eriksen. “It takes longer than it would if we were completely ready.”

Available crews concentrated on the southern end about two miles from a residential subdivision, even though the western perimeter was more active. That area is of less concern because there’s no immediate populated area, Eriksen said.

In Interior Alaska, a dozen firefighters worked Sunday on putting out a three-acre flare-up from a wildfire that contributed to the record 6.7 million acres burned in the state last year.

“We don’t see any other new source for the ignition,” said Marsha Henderson, a state forestry division spokeswoman. “Last fall, some fires were still burning when it started to snow.”

Air tanker kept busy
As of Sunday, only one of two air tankers chartered from Canada had arrived. The other won’t be delivered until May 10, Henderson said. The tanker was immediately in demand, with three new large Interior fires reported Sunday.

The plane, which drops flame retardant, was heading to Homer when it was diverted to a 40-acre fire in Nenana. Before arriving there, the plane was diverted to a 150-acre fire near Delta Junction, then to a 15-acre blaze threatening homes, See said.

“In terms of the number of fires, we’re kind of on track, but typically this early we see very small fires, usually ones that escape from debris burns,” See said.

In Southeast Alaska, crews were mopping up the remains of a 400-acre wildfire that came within 250 yards of a Christian farming community about three miles south of Hoonah.