Wildfires make 2002 one of the smokiest for Fairbanks

Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When the smoke from wildfires finally clears, the summer of 2002 will go down as one of the smokiest ever in Fairbanks.

Wildfire smoke was expected to dissipate Saturday from southeast winds but return Sunday or Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Friday marked the sixth straight day that smoke was thick enough to restrict visibility at Fairbanks International Airport to 6 miles or less.

It was the 15th day of smoke in Fairbanks this summer, ranking behind only 1969, when there were 19 days of smoke in town, according to records dating to 1965.

Meteorologists said smoke was likely to return when winds turned and blew again from the southwest.

''It's going to be awhile before we see the Alaska Range,'' said meteorologist Rick Thoman. ''By the middle of next week there may be enough rain on the fires to make a difference.''

Smoke is being blown into Fairbanks from forest fires to the west and southwest. An air quality advisory issued by the Department of Environmental Conservation remained in effect in the Tanana Valley on Friday, the fifth day in a row.

It's the first summer since the National Weather Service began keeping records that Fairbanks has experienced limited visibility due to smoke in May, June, July and August, Thoman said. Smoke is rare in August.

''By August the monsoons are usually here,'' Thoman said.

With hunting seasons opening throughout the Interior on Saturday, the smoke could hamper hunters in the Alaska Range looking for Dall sheep, as well as hunters along the Steese Highway looking for caribou in the high country 100 miles north of Fairbanks.

''If it's as thick as it was a couple days ago, you wouldn't be able to see very far,'' said state wildlife biologist Craig Gardner, who flew over the Fortymile Caribou Herd last week. ''It will be like hunting in a blizzard.''

Intermittent showers and higher humidity have helped curb wildfires in the eastern Interior, but fires burning to the west had received little help from Mother Nature as of Friday.

Firefighters were still battling three wildfires Friday: the 5,200-acre Ketchem Creek Fire near Circle Hot Springs north of Fairbanks, the 255,900-acre Geskakmina Lake Fire west of Fairbanks and the 28,700-acre North Fork Fire northeast of McGrath.

All three fires were being staffed by management teams, emergency firefighter crews, smoke jumpers and helicopters. The weather was doing as much to douse the wildfires as firefighters were doing to suppress them, said Andy Williams of the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

So far this summer, 528 fires have burned 1.73 million acres in Alaska, putting 2002 at No. 6 on the list of the state's biggest burn years.

''We haven't had the season-ending event that the weather pattern normally brings,'' Williams said. ''You sort of count on that to put an end to the fire season. When that doesn't happen, we get big fire years.''

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