Dry, windy conditions increase risk of wildfires

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A brush fire forced the evacuation of dozens of people from a Seward neighborhood Wednesday, the same day national forecasters issued a ''red flag warning'' for wildfires in Southcentral Alaska.

The fire began around 1 a.m. on a brushy hillside, said city manager Scott Janke. About 40 volunteer firefighters from Seward and Bear Creek fought the 20 mph wind-fed fire for more than four hours before getting it under control. Janke told about 50 residents at 2:15 a.m. to evacuate their homes when the fire closed to within a half-mile of a subdivision.

''This hillside area had pockets of small fires all over the place,'' Janke said. ''The sparks were flying.''

One firefighter was taken to Seward Providence Medical Center to be treated for exhaustion. No other injuries were reported.

Janke said Seward normally doesn't have problem fires because the city is on the coast and gets ample rain.

Not this year. ''We have had a very dry spring,'' he said.

The National Weather Service's red flag warning applies to the Mat-Su Valley, Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and Valdez. Burn permits for the Mat-Su Valley, Anchorage area and the Kenai Peninsula also were suspended until conditions change.

''It is pretty dry,'' said National Weather Service forecaster Dan Keirns. Winds on Wednesday were gusting up to 40 mph and humidity was low, the air holding about one-quarter the moisture it usually does.

Alaska's wildfire season runs from early May to late September, moving north and west as the year progresses, said Bill Beebe, coastal regional fire management officer for the Division of Forestry.

He said the weather service issued last year issued one red flag warning.

''This is pretty serious business,'' Beebe said.

The risk of wildfires is highest in Southcentral from mid-May to greenup when the ground is free of snow and covered with dead grasses, referred to as one-hour fuels by fire experts.

Beebe said when the sun comes out and the wind picks up grasses are ready to burn in about one hour, even after a good rain.

A fire Tuesday destroyed one of the Kenai Peninsula's largest sawmills and caused more than $1 million in damage. Firefighters had to launch a massive counter-attack to keep the fire from spreading into a nearby forest.

Smokejumpers remained Wednesday on Kodiak Island where a stubborn wildfire Tuesday near Karluk burned 150 acres and a vacant building. The fire was caused by sparks from a woodstove.

''It was a wind-drawn fire,'' Beebe said. ''We're still working on it.''

The weather service's long-range forecast calls for drier but cooler weather this summer for Alaska, which could mean more fires but fewer caused by lightning strikes, Beebe said.

As he looks ahead, there are a few areas in Alaska that concern him. Spruce beetle-killed trees near Homer and the Hillside area of Anchorage have encouraged the growth of grasses, those highly-burnable one-hour fuels. The dead trees also burn well, he said.

More people are building homes in forests in the Mat-Su Valley and near Fairbanks, Beebe said.

''Humans cause most of the fires,'' he said. ''I would like for people to be careful. Pay attention.''

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