Forecast upgraded for 2009 Alaska fire season

Forecast upgraded for 2009 Alaska fire season

28 May 2009

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USA — Wildfires are expected to consume about 600,000 acres of wildlands in Alaska this year, according to the Alaska Fire Service.

That’s almost double what mathematical models led fire forecasters to predict a month ago when the fire season was expected to be low.

The fire season is now forecast to be moderate.

Lightning-caused wildfires continue to burn near the Interior communities of Chicken, near Canada, and McGrath, which is halfway between Fairbanks and Bethel.

However, cooler temperatures with scattered rain showers late this week should provide some reprieve.

“It’s going to be cooler and not nearly as dry,” National Weather Service forecaster Dan Hancock said.

The Broken Snowshoe fire north of McGrath bloomed to about 12,000 acres, according to Andy Alexandrou, public information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry.

The fire began Sunday and is named after a nearby drainage creek. It is about three and a half miles from McGrath, a community of about 300 people along the Kuskokwim River.

The river separates McGrath from the fire, but state officials are taking no chances. They planned to double the firefighting force to 200 people by the end of the day Wednesday, Alexandrou said.

“The new grasses have not emerged taller than the dead brown grass left from last summer,” Alexandrou said. “It’s dry, and extreme fire behavior has been noted.”

An expected change in the winds coupled with the cooler weather should help the firefighting effort, Alexandrou said.

“I don’t think it will be any monsoonal type of rains, but anything falling from the sky in the precipitation world would be very pleasant right now,” he said.

About 400 miles to the east is the Old Man Fire, which is burning wildlands near Chicken, a community of 19 people on the Taylor Highway near Canada.

This fire, also named after a creek, began Monday and has consumed nearly 1,000 acres.

Alaska Fire Service spokesman Doug Stockdale said the fire is burning wildlands a mere three and a half miles from Chicken but is not a particular threat to the community.

“It depends on where the winds come from and things like that,” he said.

About 100 people are assigned to fight the fire.

Both the Broken Snowshoe fire and the Old Man Fire have been attacked from the air and the ground.

Officials are monitoring several other fires in the Interior, including fires in the 6-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve.

Also, a 2-acre human-caused fire erupted Tuesday near the village of Chalkyitsik north of Fairbanks. Four firefighters are fighting that blaze.

In all, 179 wildland fires have burned nearly 63,000 acres of land this year, according to an Alaska Interagency Coordination Center situation report.

Last summer, about 106,000 acres burned in Alaska because of wildfires. It was the lowest number of acres burned since 1995.

In 2004, which was a record-breaking fire season, 6.2 million acres burned.

The 10-year average of acres burned in Alaska between late 1998 and late 2007 is 1.6 million acres, according to Stockdale.

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