A crosshatch of dead spruce trees could fuel hard-to-control wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula this summer if precipitation is low and temperatures high, Alaska wildfire experts say.
One of the three ingredients for a strong wildfire season is already waiting, a second likely and a third remains unknown, said Sharon Alden, fire weather program manager at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.
“The main concern on the Kenai Peninsula is the beetle-kill spruce,” she said.
The trees that have fallen due to bark beetle infestations wait like piles of campfire wood, ready to feed hungry flames.
Once ignited, fires that burn in areas where there are fallen spruce trees are harder to control than fires burning among living trees, Alden said.
“It has the potential to spread faster,” she said.
In a fire burning among living trees, the trees act as a wind barrier that helps prevent wind from carrying flames quickly over the peninsula.
In a forest where dead trees have fallen and grasses below receive greater sun exposure, grasses grow rapidly and create a thick thatch of fine fuels that can carry flames from one pile of dead trees to the next.
Despite copious amounts of ideal wildfire fuels on the peninsula right now, a cool, wet year could hold down a major wildfire season.
However, it would not take a long spell of unusually dry, warm weather to produce favorable wildfire conditions, said Sam Albanese, a meteorologist with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Anchorage.
“All you need is a two- to three-week period where it’s not and things could turn pretty nasty,” he said.
Based on recent trends, temperatures are likely to raise to above normal this summer, Alden said.
However, a third important and slippery factor remains unknown.
As of now there are no strong indicators by which climatologists can determine whether this summer’s precipitation will be below, at or above normal levels, she said.
John See, a fire management officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry, cited snowpack longevity as a fourth factor that will determine not the severity of this summer’s wildfire season, but could influence how early it begins.
Ideally, snow will remain on the ground until the growing season begins and the snow recedes to reveal a carpet of green sprouting grasses, he said.
If, on the other hand, the snow melts in advance of the growing season, the snow’s retreat will expose dead grasses to the heat of the drying sun and provide fine fuels that could spark an early fire season.
“As long as the snowpack is on there it’s not going to burn,” Albanese said. “it delays the onset of the fire threat.”
Last year’s fire season in Alaska marked the third greatest wildfire season on record, consuming more than 4.4 million acres. The greatest wildfire season occurred in 2004, consuming 6.59 acres.
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