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Fired up: Warming season brings danger of wildfires with it

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Posted: Sunday, May 6, 2012 10:52 pm | Updated: 4:25 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Editorial

Winter-like temperatures returned earlier this month, but we all know they won’t be staying. The longer days bring heat, and nowhere in Alaska is that heat more intense than in the Interior.

Where there’s heat, there’s fire.

Most wildfires in Alaska are started by lightning. Already during a few warm days in April, the atmospheric convection created large clouds over the hills north of Fairbanks. In a few weeks, even warmer days will drive such clouds into cumulonimbus formations capable of making lightning.

About 80 percent of the lightning strikes in Alaska hit the Interior, because it’s the state’s warmest region in the summer, according to a paper by several local scientists published last year in the journal Theoretical and Applied Climatology. The scientists looked at the data from lightning detectors maintained by firefighting agencies.

The number of strikes is impressive. On average, the state gets zapped 32,000 times per year. Most hits occur from May through August during the three or four hours after the sun reaches its zenith on hot days. Fortunately, only about one in 600 strikes actually starts a wildfire, the scientists found.

And here’s a curious fact: “Positive strikes occur less frequently and are mostly found under dry conditions,” the researchers wrote. “They are, on average, four times more likely to start a fire than negative strikes, which are normally accompanied by rainfall and a wet surface, making the ignition of a fire more difficult.”

No one seems to have invented a method of ordering a 20,000-foot cumulonimbus monster to kindly limit itself to negative bolts, though.

So, when it comes to prevention, we’re left to focus on the human-caused blazes. They burn only about 7 percent of the acreage each year in Alaska but make up for it in excitement because they tend to be near towns. In recent years, there have been scary fires in neighborhoods all around Fairbanks and North Pole. Fortunately, our excellent firefighting crews, with a little help from favorable winds on occasion, have prevented extensive damage.

Residents of the Interior can do their part by being careful with any sort of device that can create a spark, coal or flame. Safe burning practices can be reviewed online at the state Division of Forestry website, http://forestry.alaska.gov/burn, or on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/AlaskaDNRDOF.

We also can protect our property by following the “firewise” guidelines available online at http://forestry.alaska.gov/pdfs/firewise09.pdf. And for up-to-date information on fires, go to the Interagency Coordination Center website http://fire.ak.blm.gov. The forestry division also is on Facebook and Twitter.

Wildfire is a natural part of the Interior’s ecosystem, but that observation offers scant comfort when flames are headed for your house. It’s best to think ahead and act cautiously to reduce the inevitable danger that comes with summer’s heat.

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