Division of Forestry Pack Test

Alaska Division of Forestry personnel take their annual pack test, a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack that must be completed in 45 minutes, along Boat Street as part of their fitness qualification in preparation for the upcoming wildfire season Saturday morning, May 3, 2014.

FAIRBANKS — Fire officials are projecting “above normal” early summer wildfire danger this year in much of Alaska, including most of the Interior.

A warm April and thin snowpack in the state is contributing to the higher-than-normal risk, with an early melt-off in most areas. Those two factors typically boost fire danger in May, thanks to a basic rule of thumb in Alaska — when the snow melts, fire season begins.

So far, 45 fires have been reported in the state, most in Southcentral. They’ve consumed about 1,700 acres, but almost all of that was a result of five prescribed burns that are included in the total. 

Early prescribed fire areas near Delta Junction have shown higher than expected fire activity in live fuels, according to a report by the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, adding to the potential danger.

“What we’re dealing with at the present is the pre-greenup, dry grass phase,” said Division of Forestry fire information officer Maggie Hess.

A handful of small fires have been sparked from live-fire training at Fort Wainwright, but they’ve been extinguished almost immediately. 

An artillery drill sparked the Stuart Creek 2 fire that threatened Two Rivers last summer, which officials said at the time would result in a review of live-fire training procedures. An Army Alaska spokesman couldn’t be reached Friday to comment on changes made this year. 

Unlike the mid-summer fire season, when most blazes are caused by lightning strikes, May fires are largely preventable. Careless human behavior is typically the cause, including yard work and poorly supervised burns.

The long-range forecast also includes an “above normal” projection for June, based on weather projections for early summer, followed by a normal July and August. Those late-summer forecasts are hazier, said Sharon Alder, a fire weather meteorologist with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, but a pattern has emerged that points to prime fire weather.

“The long-range forecasts are pretty definitive that it’s going to be warm — warmer than normal these next few months,” she said.

Alder said rainfall will determine how the late season progresses. Season-ending rains typically squelch fire activity in late July or August, but a strong El Nino in the forecast could delay those rains, extending the fire season by a month or more.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter:

@FDNMbusiness.