Firefighters focusing on Interior blaze, Point MacKenzie burn

Firefighters focusing on Interior blaze, Point MacKenzie burn

01 June 2013

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USA — Wildfires are igniting statewide thanks to a delayed spring that offered little time for vegetation to grow and dead grasses to disappear. A lightning-caused fire in Interior Alaska has burned an estimated 1,000 acres by Saturday evening while farther south another blaze at Point Mackenzie has been nearly contained.

The “Bitter Creek Fire” sparked roughly 60 miles from the small, Interior village of Tok Friday afternoon. It’s now ten times its initial size, with more than 1,000 acres of Alaska wilderness caught in its path.

According to the Alaska Division of Forestry, the wildfire continues to burn about 30 miles northeast of Northway, population 71. Officials say no structures are immediately threatened.

Last night, the fire was burning south toward the Alaska Highway, and Forestry warned motorists to drive slowly with their headlights on. Early Saturday, the fire was moving northeast, away from the highway. Now, due to another wind shift, the fire is moving southeast, with its boundary located 13 miles from the highway.

Forestry spokesperson Sarah Saarloos said highway closures are determined on a case-by-case basis, and there are no plans to close the highway at this time. She advised motorist to remain cautious.

A total of 68 personnel are fighting the Interior fire. The state has deployed additional resources to the fire, including two hotshot crews. They’ve joined a helicopter of Forestry firefighters, two air tankers, the Tanana Chiefs fire crew and the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service smokejumpers.

The crews are “hitting the fire hard,” dropping retardant on the flames, Saarloos said. The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, which provides logistic support and prediction services for a plethora of federal and state agencies involved in wildlife fire management, is working with officials in Tok to contain the fire. Saarloos expects crews to have the fire partially contained by Saturday night.

There are two factors contributing to the fire’s growth. First, lightning seasons appears to have arrived early. Second, a very late breakup left a small window for “green up,” a period when vegetation grows and dead grasses are replaced. Cold temperatures up until mid-May prevented that growth.

Typically, springtime fires are human-caused; they occur in campsites and people’s backyards. Lightning-caused fires are more common during mid- to late-summer, said Robert Ziel, Forestry fire behavior analyst. Vegetation is extremely dry, he said, as there are reports of spruces fully engulfed in flames in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, fire fighters have nearly contained a blaze at Point Mackenzie, which has destroyed one cabin and a shed.

The fire should be fully contained by Saturday evening, as crews are holding the extent of the blaze at 45 acres. The fire reportedly began Thursday night when a campfire ignited dry grass south of Mile 4.5 of Point Mackenzie Road, KTUU reported.

While there are still some concerns about the Mat-Su fire, like old, dead trees in the area, the Pioneer Peak hotshot fire crew has been released to other fires.

Point Mackenzie largely is a rural area, home to 111 people residing in 39 homes. The sparsely populated area made headlines over the past three years due to one of many megaproject’s throughout Alaska, the Goose Creek Correctional Center. Prisoners began arriving at the $240 million facility in February.

The fire, according to an administrator, didn’t affect the prison’s operations.

Nature is causing most of the fires across the state — for now. Near McGrath, a village of about 400 on the Kuskokwim River –communities along the river have avoided any major flooding this year, unlike towns on the banks of the Yukon — multiple lightning caused fires have been reported. Fire managers are currently assessing risk level, which will help set priorities for their resources, according to Forestry.

Areas with risks to life and property receive more resources than the state’s far-flung lands set ablaze by lightning. Saarloos wouldn’t go as far as saying resoruces are stretched thin, but officials are managing their resources carefully, she said.

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