ANCHORAGE — Alaska fire crews are back at work for a summer wildfire season that follows a winter of below-average snow and exposed, drying combustibles on the ground in parts of the state.
Burn permits were suspended Monday in the Fairbanks, Salcha and Delta areas, as well as the Railbelt region, which includes Nenana, Anderson, Clear, Healy and Denali, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Of the 521 acres that has burned in Alaska this season, about 60 percent has been on military land, according to the Alaska Fire Service. Most of that is related to prescribed burns in ranges that could ignite later during live-fire training exercises, said Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry, which also works with the Fire Service’s Interagency Coordination Center.
Of the 66 fires identified by the Coordination Center so far this fire season, 65 were human caused from sources such as out-of-control burn pits or, in one case, a fire from a sweat lodge, Mowry said. The total does not include prescribed burns like those on the military bases and ranges, he said.
Another chunk of the charred ground in the state is in Southwest Alaska, where a fire near the village of Togiak burned 192 acres April 17 after spreading from a burn box at the local landfill.
“It was blowing away from the village, and rain put it out before we could even think about responding,” Mowry said of the Togiak fire.
Just two days earlier in the village of Dillingham, a couple of outbuildings burned after a grass fire took off, Mowry said.
Only about an acre had burned in the Fairbanks area as of Monday, according to the Interagency Coordination Center. Mowry, who was in Kenai for readiness checks, said crews on Alaska’s road system were putting out mostly small fires.
“Things are definitely dry and burnable,” Mowry said. “They’ve been responding to grass fires on a pretty regular basis.”
With little recent precipitation and sunny skies, fuel in the form of dry sticks and other fallen wood continues to dry out, Mowry said. That is tracking with fire managers’ concern that low snowfall in the winter of 2014-15 would lead to the possibility of an early fire season, he said.
“Nothing big yet. We’ve been able to keep everything under control, and people have been pretty good about burning, for the most part,” Mowry said. “Our crews are pretty much all coming on now. Their training is done and they’re fire ready.”
Still, Mowry said, anyone hoping to burn brush with their required burn permit should check in daily with their area forestry office to learn of any closures.
Meantime, weather forecasters responsible for determining Fairbanks’ official green-up day said it could be soon. Green-up is when a particular, predetermined area that serves as a sample for the whole city — Chena Ridge in Fairbanks — rapidly shifts from brown to green as leaves open up.
“Just looking out the window, we’re seeing some trees open up and it’s looking pretty green,” said Lindsay Tardif-Huber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Once it’s all green, we put it down as green-up. It’s something that marks the beginning of spring and summer. It’s the end of snow and cold. We just keep track of it.”
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter. Contact him at 770‑0722 or follow on Twitter: @kcgrove.