Interior officials brace for early fire season

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Alaska fire officials are worried that wildland fire season could come early to the Interior unless nature cooperates with a healthy dumping of snow or rain in the coming month.

Fire season has already begun in Southcentral Alaska. Residents in the Mat-Su Valleys, Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak have to obtain a burn permit before burning open fires. The Anchorage Fire Department has issued a total fire ban on all open burning in Anchorage.

Interior foresters haven't decided to impose similar bans yet, but expect a dry season ahead.

''Because of the lack of snow, it's going to dry out earlier and that will mean fires will start earlier,'' said Andy Williams, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. The center coordinates much of the firefighting efforts for the Interior.

Last year, temperatures in the Interior suddenly spiked in May, drying out the dead debris left over from winter before forests had a chance to green up.

''It was one of the busiest early seasons that anybody here has experienced,'' Williams told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The Interior was in a full-fledged fire season by the end of May, including three of the largest fires in the state. One fire, the West Fork Fire near the end of Chena Hot Springs Road, burned about 23,000 acres and four cabins. The fire started May 23 when a man violated the ban on burning and sparks from his burn barrel ignited the dry grass nearby. The state Division of Forestry said the fire cost $3.4 million to fight.

Almost 2.2 million acres burned in Alaska last year, the fifth largest amount since 1955 when fire seasons were first tracked, Williams said.

Usually the fire season starts on Kodiak and moves east, but Joe Stam, chief of Alaska State Forestry's fire and aviation, said last year fires came all at once and stretched firefighting resources thin.

John Lingaas, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, said so far the 41 inches of winter precipitation is more than last year but still well below the normal 67 inches by this time of the year.

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