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Wildfires just part of living in Fairbanks

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Posted: Friday, May 4, 2012 10:22 am

FAIRBANKS - Chances are good that you will catch a little — or big — whiff of smoke during your stay in Fairbanks.

The Interior is not only the heart of Alaska, it is also the state’s tinderbox. More land burns as a result of wildfires in the black-spruce-covered Interior than anywhere else in Alaska.

Rarely a summer goes by in which the Interior doesn’t get at least a few smoky days. How much smoke blows into Fairbanks and how thick it is depends on where fires are located and what direction the wind is blowing.

During the worst times, the smoke can be so thick that it reduces visibility to less than one-quarter of a mile and prompts air quality warnings. In those instances, people are advised to say indoors and reduce outdoor activities.

Last year’s fire season was tame by Alaska standards. A total of 515 fires burned only 293,018 acres, the third-lowest annual total in the past 10 years. Normally, about 1 million acres burns each year and most of that is in the Interior, which is the hottest, driest part of the state in the summer.

The largest fire season on record in Alaska is 2004, when almost 6.6 million acres burned around the state, almost all of which was north of the Alaska Range.

There is no way to predict how this summer’s fire season will shape up. Mostly it depends on the weather in May and June. The drier and hotter it is, the more chance there is for fires to start. The fire season typically begins in May and runs through July, though it can start as early as April and last into September in dry, hot years.

There are two causes of wildfires in Alaska — humans and lightning, the latter of which generally produces the biggest fires. Lightning-caused fires usually occur during the hottest part of the summer from late May to July. Fires caused by lightning strikes typically are in remote areas and are often left to burn because they do not pose a threat to anything.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center on Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks coordinates firefighting efforts in Alaska. The AICC is one of 11 geographic area coordination centers located throughout the United States and operates on a federal and state interagency basis. During a busy fire season, hundreds of firefighters, many from Native villages in the Alaska Bush, are hired by the Alaska Fire Service to fight fires. Smokejumpers and air tankers are imported from the Lower 48.

Whether a fire is fought depends on where it is and what kind of threat it poses to people and resources, such as communities, cabins, timber and Native allotments and timber. There are four types of suppression categories in Alaska: critical, full, modified and limited. Fires in areas designated in modified and limited suppression areas are often allowed to burn while fires in critical and full suppression areas are attacked immediately.

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