Late season wildfire ravages North Slope

Late season wildfire ravagesNorth Slope

27 September 2007

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Alaska, USA — Thelargest wildfire of Alaska’s 2007 fire season has involved very few trees, butit is now the largest tundra fire ever recorded on the North Slope. It hasravaged more than 220,000 acres, and officials say it could continue to burn forseveral more weeks.

The fire has been dubbed the Anaktuvuk River Fire and is locatednear the 69th Parallel. It began with a lightning strike July 16, during anunusually warm, dry summer that has nurtured the flames.

“We’ve seen periods of rapid growth interspersed with periods of the firedoing almost nothing,” said Mike Butteri, a field specialist for the AlaskaFire Service’s Tanana Zone.

Officials are following the Alaska Fire Management Plan in dealing with thefire, which suggest monitoring the fire in case it approaches a village ratherthan trying to combat the blaze.

The nearest population center is 300-person Anaktuvuk Pass, about 50 milessouth of the fire. Though there is little risk of the fire coming toward thecity, it was inundated by smoke several weeks ago when the wind changeddirection.

The shift in the direction of the wind also resulted in “choking smoke”making its way toward researchers working at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’Toolik Field Station, said station director Brian Barnes.

“It’s a tremendous fire,” he said. “It’s visible from 50 miles awayby its plumes, and it obscured a third of the northern sky.”

The fire continues to show significant activity at its northern and southernperimeters, according to the Department of Forestry. Still, authorities believethe fire 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, Idon’t see it lasting much longer.”‘

It is possible for a tundra fire to sustain itself on the peat underneathsnow, but Butteri said that is an unlikely scenario for this fire.

He also downplayed the possibility that such a large fire was the result ofclimate change.

“I wouldn’t want to pin it on climate change one way or the other,” hesaid. “We’ve experienced anomalies in the past. In the 1950s there wasanother large fire in that country. It’s just a rare event.”

Since the tundra is mostly home to low, quick growing vegetation, Butterisaid there is little concern about major long-term changes to the environment.One exception, however, is reindeer lichen, a key food source for caribou in thearea, which can take decades to grow back.

Perry Barboza, an associate professor of biology at UAF’s Institute ofArctic Biology, and a caribou expert, said the lack of lichen could drivecaribou away from the area.

“Either they’ll shift to something else or they’ll have to go somewhereless benign and more exposed,” he said.

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