Busy fire season brings cash, habitat improvements

Posted: Tuesday, September 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's biggest wildfire season in more than a decade is winding down, leaving ash and cash as the forests cool.

More than 2.2 million acres burned this summer, the highest acreage since 1990. It was the fifth most destructive fire season since record keeping began in 1955, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks.

But while a handful of buildings went up in flames and smoky skies irritated eyes and lungs from Fairbanks to Homer, the burning forests also created hundreds of jobs and healthier forest ecosystems that soon could yield higher moose populations.

Fire officials are still trying to figure out why summer 2002 was such a scorcher, said Pat Houghton, intelligence officer with the Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks.

''We suspect two very unusual weather events,'' Houghton told the Anchorage Daily News. ''Sometimes you can go three or four summers without seeing one of them.''

No one is quite sure what happened, but it appears that a winter's worth of precipitation ran off more quickly than usual.

A few weeks later a high-pressure zone descended out of the Arctic and sucked the moisture out of Interior Alaska.

''It was one of the strongest and driest we ever will see,'' he said, ''and it got bigger and stronger every day.''

By midsummer, fires were burning all over Western and Interior Alaska, sending plumes of smoke into population centers.

In a typical summer, the fire season starts winding down in early August as the rainy season begins. But another big high-pressure zone settled in, bringing Interior temperatures into the 90s and humidity as low as 10 percent.

More than 500 fires burned this summer, but the hallmark of 2002 was the number of big fires. Four fires burned more than 100,000 acres each, and three others topped the 200,000-acre mark.

''We don't usually get that many big fires,'' Houghton said.

Because most forests are fire-dependent ecosystems and need occasional burns to keep them healthy this summer's fires are expected to improve habitat for a variety of wildlife.

''It's an ever-changing mosaic, a patchiness, that really is good,'' because it allows for varied wildlife, said Dale Haggstrom, the fire and habitat management coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Different animals thrive in different habitats and together form a complex food chain that supports all of them. Fires, he said, ''are almost always a benefit.''

The 209,000-acre Vinasale fire near McGrath was particularly welcome and could soon pay handsome dividends, said Rod Boertje, a Fish and Game biologist who concentrates on predator-prey relationships.

His studies show that predators such as bears and wolves are less efficient moose hunters after forest fires clean out the vegetation in an area. McGrath-area moose populations have plummeted, and predation by bears and wolves is suspected as the primary cause.

Trappers may see fewer fur-bearing animals in the short term, Haggstrom said, but that will change quickly. New grasses and shrubs will fuel a population explosion of voles and mice, which then will support more martens, foxes and other small predators.

If fires are essential to forest health, they have become a mainstay of the economic health of many rural Alaska communities, said Brigitta Windisch-Cole, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor.

''For many, it often represents the only job opportunity for people to earn cash,'' she said. Though a firefighter's annual income may not be much, a dollar goes a long way in a subsistence economy, she added.

Hooper Bay has been sending crews to fight fires for as long as Elmer Simon can remember. He is the longtime crew chief and current tribal administrator.

''You were always glad to see the men go, because it meant they were earning money. But we were always anxious to see them return.''

The wages earned far from home on a fire line are welcome in a small village, he said. ''There's not much job opportunity other than fishing and firefighting.''

Firefighters are limited to working 21 days at a time, Simon said. ''A good fire season is when we got to go out three or four times a season.'' He estimated that 42 days of work would earn a firefighter $3,000 to $5,000.

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