Low snow pack levels increase risk of early fire season

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's lack of winter may lead to an early and risk-elevated fire season this spring.

Sharon Alden, fire weather program manager at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, said a large area of the state has less than 50 percent of normal snow pack. The reduced snow pack may increase the probability of human-cause wildfires in upcoming months.

''Because of low snow pack on the ground the ground litter (decomposing leaves and vegetation from last summer) is not nearly as compacted as normal,'' Alden said last week. ''This could lead to a higher fire danger during pre-green up, between the time when the snow melts and the growth season starts.''

The pre-green up season usually occurs during early to mid-May and lasts for two to three weeks. This year the pre-green up season is predicted to come two to three weeks early because of higher than normal temperatures and the diminished snow pack. The time pre-green up lasts also is predicted to be shorter.

The areas that have an elevated fire potential start in Bethel, move southward through Dillingham, and then east through Fairbanks and the eastern Interior. There also are elevated fire risks through the Southcentral road system, from Talkeetna south to Anchorage and through the northwestern half of the Kenai Peninsula. Some areas have little or no snow left.

For the last five years, Anchorage has had a range of 13 to 22 inches of snow pack during early March. This year, most of the bowl is free of snow. While precipitation levels have been close to normal, the rain has actually increased the chance of fires during the pre-green up season because it has washed away what little snow fell over the winter.

While Alden said that most of the fire risk will occur along accessible transportation routes, such as spring hunting areas and wild land close to populated portions of the state, the warm weather also brings a risk to some remote areas.

''The ice on the rivers is thinner, meaning access for boats on the rivers will be earlier,'' said Alden. ''This means a greater chance of fires started along those rivers by campfires and warming fires.''

Alden said that the upcoming spring would have to be wet, cool and snowy to lower the risk of pre-green up fires. But according state and federal forecasters, the most likely weather scenario for spring is continued warm temperatures.

Fire officials also said pre-green up fires may require more fire fighting resources than Alaska usually has ready. Andy Williams, fire information officer at the Alaska Fire Services office, said smokejumpers usually begin training in April. If fires begin earlier, Williams said, firefighters can call on help can from the Lower 48.

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