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Warm, dry weather stirs up Interior Alaska wildfires

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Posted: Friday, August 9, 2013 12:04 am | Updated: 8:18 am, Sat Aug 10, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — It may be August, which normally is the wettest month of the summer, but the Alaska fire season still is cooking.

Thanks to a blast of late-summer heat and wind, several fires that were smoldering around the Interior flared up this week and are requiring the attention of firefighters.

“We’ve got our hands full,” Jim Schwarber, a fire information officer for the state Division of Forestry, said on Thursday. “The fire season is continuing, and we’re being challenged because conditions are so dry, and the wind is compounding the seriousness of things.”

Strong wind gusts of 30 to 40 mph as a result of chinook winds in the central and eastern Alaska Range, combined with high temperatures, low humidity, no precipitation and dry fuels, have fanned fires back to life near Birch Creek, Tok, Delta Junction, Healy and Venetie.

The smell of smoke was evident in Fairbanks on Wednesday and Thursday.

The temperature hit 80 degrees for the record 36th time this summer on Thursday in Fairbanks, and only 1.44 inches of rain has fallen in Alaska’s second-largest city since June 1, which is 2.25 inches below normal. That makes this summer the fourth-driest on record through Aug. 7 in more than 100 years, said meteorologist Ed Plumb at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

The forecast calls for continued warm temperatures and wind gusts as strong as 45 mph today in the central and eastern Alaska Range. There is no precipitation in the forecast for the next week.

“We’re not getting any August weather any time soon,” Plumb said.

Both the Alaska Fire Service and state Division of Forestry were gearing up Thursday to send firefighters to fires near Circle Hot Springs and Delta Junction that were rekindled by strong winds and hot, dry conditions.

The 11,000-acre Birch Creek Fire, which was started by lightning on July 3 and is burning about 3 1/2 miles northwest of Circle Hot Springs, blew up Wednesday, prompting the Alaska Interagency Coordinator Center to order a Type 2 incident management team to take over the fire today. Fire engines from the Division of Forestry were also requested to patrol the Steese Highway in the vicinity of the Birch Creek Fire.

A Type 3 management team was ordered for the 1,500-acre Mississippi Fire near Delta Junction, which increased by almost 300 acres on Wednesday. That fire, which is on military land, had been smoldering since May 30 before it roared to life on Wednesday.

“It started at the end of May, but there hadn’t been any real activity other than minor smokes over the summer,” fire information officer Mel Slater with the Alaska Fire Service said. “Yesterday a gust of wind picked it up and there was a nice, big plume of smoke visible from Delta Junction.”

In addition to ordering management teams for the Birch Creek and Mississippi, the AICC has also requested the return of three water-scooping aircraft from Canada, and the Division of Forestry requested the return of an air tanker from Oregon.

“The thing that really drives fire in addition to wind is dry fuels,” Schwarber said. “The fuel indices we monitor are all getting up into the extreme range in the Yukon Flats and eastern Tanana Valley.

“We’re ripe to have additional fire growth over next few days,” he said.

The Birch Creek and Mississippi fires are two of nine blazes state and federal firefighters are battling to keep under control during one of the hottest, driest summers on record in Fairbanks.

Additional crews were requested Thursday to complement the 104 firefighters already battling the 1,500-acre Crater Creek Fire burning 16 miles west of Venetie, which had more than doubled in size since Tuesday.

The Moon Lake Fire near Tok, which started on June 25, grew by almost 3,400 acres in two days after flaring up on Tuesday. There were 93 firefighters battling that blaze.

The 9,215-acre Tetlin Junction Ridge Fire, also near Tok, experienced increased activity, too, as a result of strong winds. There were 11 firefighters assigned to that fire.

The 87,000-acre Stuart Creek 2 Fire east of Fairbanks, which threatened the community of Two Rivers and forced the evacuation of some residents last month, was still smoldering and smoking but hadn’t made any kind of big movements lately, fire information officer Terry Anderson said. There were still 88 firefighters attending to that fire.

There were 77 firefighters still assigned to the 84-acre Long Creek Fire, which started on Saturday on the north side of the Steese Highway at 47 Mile. While that fire was reported to be 100 percent contained on Monday, that assessment turned out to be incorrect, Schwarber said. The fire was listed as 40 percent contained on Thursday.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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