Conditions ripe for fires

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2003

This winter's unusually warm weather and relative lack of snowfall has been a boon to residents who dread the typical Alaska winter. But the mild winter conditions come at a price -- a much higher fire danger than is normally experienced this time of year.

This danger was vividly demonstrated over the past week, when the combination of strong winds, low moisture content in the air and dry grasses on the ground resulted in several fires. According to Sharon Roesch of the Division of Forestry, wildland firefighters alone responded to 37 fires last week in Southcentral Alaska.

Roesch termed the situation as very unusual. By March of most winters, fine fuels like dry grasses are compressed against the ground and kept wet by ice and snowpack. This year, however, the fine fuels are still dry and exposed to surface fuels, like shrubs and deadfall. According to Roesch, these conditions allow wildfires to burn deeper and makes them harder to extinguish.

In response to the heightened fire danger, the Division of Forestry is discouraging people from doing any open burning until adequate precipitation is received in the area. If rain or snow falls in the area, and people have small amounts of grass or brush to burn, the division recommends utilizing the following fire safety procedures:

n Construct a firebreak that completely encircles the material to be burned before the fire is lit.

n Fires should not be lit during dry, windy conditions.

n If burning during freezing temperatures, make sure garden hoses or other water supplies intended to control the fire are operational and not frozen before the fire is lit.

n Fires must be attended until they are completely extinguished.

n Burn piles should be turned over with hand tools or heavy equipment and soaked with water to extinguish any embers that may remain, even if the piles were burned earlier.

People wanting to do some burning but not interested in following adequate safety precautions should note that anyone responsible for lighting a fire that escapes control may be held liable for fire suppression costs and damages caused by the fire, according to the division.

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