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Federal, state agencies prepare for 2013 wildfires

Posted: April 30, 2013 - 10:17pm

ANCHORAGE — Federal and state land managers enjoyed a quiet wildfire season in 2012 but say they are fully equipped if conditions change this year.

National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service officials said Tuesday that automatic cuts in the federal budget should not directly affect Alaska wildfire suppression.

“We are training our folks. We do have the fire staff that we’ve had in past years,” said Dan Warthin, regional fire management officer for the National Park Service.

Bureau of Land Management spokesman Craig McCaa in Fairbanks said his agency also expects to have the same resources as last year.

That’s a relief for state of Alaska officials, who would have to step in if federal agencies pulled back, said Dean Brown, deputy state forester with the Division of Forestry.

“We’ll have a good fire response this season,” she said at a media briefing planned as part of Wildland Fire and Preparedness Week.

Wildfire season usually begins with spring grass fires. Gradual snowmelt puts water in the ground and promotes growth of green, fire-resistant grass, but rapid runoff on frozen ground exposes brown grass that can burn easily, Brown said.

Sudden warm, windy weather can trump most everything, said Gary Lehnhausen, U.S. Forest Service fire safety and training program manager.

“It could erase 10 years of what happened before,” he said. “Two weeks of hot, dry, windy weather could put us in extreme fire most of the time in Alaska.”

Most fires early in the season are caused by humans who do not control campfires, burn barrels or brush burns, and spring wind can make them spread quickly. Human-caused fires are dangerous because they usually occur near buildings or other valued property.

As summer approaches, the weather changes and lightning sparks fires in remote areas, especially north of the Alaska Range.

Much of the state is designated as “limited suppression” areas, which are far from communities.

The early season forecast, Brown said, was a normal fire season with 1.7 million acres burned. An updated monthly forecast is due out this week.

Agency officials chuckled when asked if last year was slow.

“It was the second quietest season in the last 11 years,” Warthin said.

“We had one fire on Forest Service land last year,” Lehnhausen said.

A late spring, a cool, wet, early summer and a lack of lightning were factors, Brown said, coupled with fast initial attacks.

The 2013 season has begun with April grass and brush fires on Kodiak Island, Brown said, but snow in Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage in the last week is making for another late spring.

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