Winter fire scorches tundra

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Firefighters are monitoring a rare 20,000-acre fire burning on frozen tundra about 20 miles east of Kotlik on the southern coast of Norton Sound.

Alaska's wildfire season is usually long over by December.

''I haven't heard of anything like it,'' said Andy Williams, spokesman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

The fire in southwest Alaska is within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Larry Vanderlinden, fire management coordinator for the agency, said fire crews would be brought in only if it threatens Kotlik residents or other humans and structures.

Vanderlinden said that's not likely. Both the Pastolik and the Pastoliak rivers, as well as smaller streams and lakes, stand between the village and the fire. Observers have seen no cabins in the fire's path.

Williams said the fire was first spotted Wednesday. Observers from the Rescue Coordination Center, an interagency search and rescue team, flew over the area in a Blackhawk helicopter to look for threats to human life.

Fire officials believe the fire is human-caused, although it's under investigation.

''The most reliable information is that it was started by the backfire of a snowmachine,'' Vanderlinden said.

The fast-moving fire burning lichens and tussock tundra was fanned by 20-30 mph winds that gusted to 40 mph. The fire had spread at least 13 miles by Friday, Vanderlinden said.

The acting manager of the refuge flew over the fire Friday afternoon and said winds appeared to be diminishing.

''He said it was substantially less active today,'' Vanderlinden said.

Vanderlinden has been in Alaska wildfire suppression since 1970. He said the only other significant winter fire he can remember was one in March in a windblown area near Delta Junction in the late 1970s or early '80s.

''We've never had anything in Southwest Alaska, especially in December,'' Vanderlinden said.

The area is mostly snow-free. ''It for the most part has evaporated or blown off,'' Vanderlinden said.

People use the refuge on snowmachines even without snow. Tides raise levels of major rivers and flood mud flats. The flooded areas freeze and leave paths for snowmachines on ice, Vanderlinden said. Some drivers ride overland, he said.

The area is designated for full fire protection because of concerns for critical wildlife habit. However, the threatened wildlife, such as the bristle-thighed curlew, is not around this time of year.

''The threat to those birds is in the summer time when they're nesting,'' Vanderlinden said.

Fighting the fire would be dangerous because of the elements and the speed with which the fire is moving.

''We couldn't really expect people to camp out there,'' he said. ''Natural resources are not worth putting human life at risk.''

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is the nation's largest wildlife refuge, covering 19.6 million acres and encompassing the deltas of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, the two longest rivers in Alaska.

The region is treeless and consists mostly of vast tracts of wetlands.

The refuge is one of the most significant waterfowl breeding areas in North America.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge provides habitat for more than 750,000 swans and geese, 2 million ducks, and 100 million shore and water birds. Moose, caribou, grizzly bear, black bear, and wolves inhabit the northern hills and eastern mountains of the refuge.

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