Weather slows spread of tundra fire

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Diminished winds and high humidity have slowed the spread of a tundra fire that has burned 15,000 acres near Kotlik on the south shore of Norton Sound.

Fire officials previously said the fire had burned 20,000 acres but revised their estimates Saturday night.

Larry Vanderlinden, fire management coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said winds had dropped to less than 10 mph on Saturday. A remote weather station 40 miles south of the fire indicated humidity had increased to over 90 percent, up from 65-70 percent.

''Things are decreasing in activity because of the weather conditions,'' Vanderlinden said.

The fire in southwest Alaska is within the 19.6 million acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's largest, which encompasses the deltas of Alaska's two longest rivers, the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. The Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge.

The closest village is Kotlik, 20 miles west of the fire. Vanderlinden said a Fish and Wildlife Service employee in the village reported intermittent snowfall Saturday and less smoke in the air.

''The fire has cooled considerably,'' he said.

More snow is predicted for Sunday and Monday. The acting refuge manager in Bethel, about 160 miles south of the fire, will wait until Monday to monitor the fire by airplane again unless weather conditions change or the fire threatens people, Vanderlinden said.

''We feel pretty confident the fire will not be real active today,'' he said. ''If there are any threats, we'll take a little more aggressive action.''

The fire was first spotted Wednesday. A search and rescue team flew over the area to make sure no people or buildings were in its path.

Northeast winds that blew steadily at 20-30 mph and gusted to 40 mph pushed the fire over the mostly snow-free tundra, Vanderlinden said. The latest information he had indicated the fire has burned a kidney-shape area 10 miles long and two to four miles wide.

The cause of the fire is under investigation but Vanderlinden said it may have been caused by a snowmobile backfiring.

The refuge is almost treeless, consisting mostly of vast tracts of wetlands that are 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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