Winds kindle wildfire danger in Southcentral Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Authorities are warning residents of Anchorage and the Matanuska and Susitna valleys that strong winds, dry weather and unusual ground conditions have created an early wildfire hazard, and they discouraged any kind of burning.

The lack of snow, coupled with very low humidity, have created dry conditions conducive to grass and brush fires, the state Division of Forestry said.

''We have an exceptionally dry winter here in Southcentral Alaska,'' said Bill Beebe, the agency's fire management officer for the coastal region. ''When this is mixed with fire and these strong wind conditions, we have a situation that demands attention.''

Winds gusted as high as 82 mph in Wasilla and 55 mph in Palmer on Sunday, but lost some strength Monday.

Forestry crews and local fire departments had responded to 37 brush fires in Southcentral Alaska between Friday and Monday afternoon, the agency said. No injuries were reported.

Old, smoldering brush piles caused some of the fires, the forestry division said.

Among the largest and most dangerous was a 20-acre blaze north of Wasilla that a large firefighting crew had contained by noon Monday, said Jack Krill, interim director of emergency services for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The fire began Sunday night when a huge debris pile burst into flame, Krill said.

Developers creating a gravel pit near a residential neighborhood had bulldozed trees, brush, roots and dirt into a 200-foot-long berm that was up to 50 feet wide and 25 feet high, he said. They burned it about 1 1/2 weeks ago.

''They let the fire burn itself out, but the fires get down deep and hold heat in deep pockets,'' Krill said. ''The fires broke through the piles and were fanned (into flames) by the wind.''

When crews arrived Sunday night, they found the fire burning across a five- to six-acre tract with flames as high as 30 feet and the wind lifting embers 300 feet in the air, Krill said.

About 100 firefighters battled the blaze.

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