FAIRBANKS—Near-record temperatures earlier this week brought Alaska's fire season back into full swing. Officials expected the uptick in fire activity, which followed a cool stretch with some rain that allowed crews to hold or make progress on some fires.
More than 3.1 million acres have burned in Alaska as of Tuesday, and thick smoke pushed the air quality index to "hazardous" in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. If the trend continues, Alaska will likely set a new record for total acres burned in a summer, passing the 6.6 million mark in 2004.
The Tanana zone continues to be one of the most dynamic and unknown situations in Alaska. Winds reached 40 mph throughout Tuesday morning, resulting in big fire growth and the merger of Tozitna and Spicer Creek fires. Officials can't estimate the fire's size because of extreme smoke in the area.
Crews had to "jump on" fire activity near Tanana's airport, according to Kale Casey, a public information officer at the Joint Information Center on Fort Wainwright.
The Hay Slough Fire southeast of Tanana pushed approximately 3 miles north and now totals more than 40,000 acres. Thirty-five miles south of Tanana, the 25,522-acre Lloyd Fire exhibited extreme fire danger on Monday, forcing crews to pull back.
More than one dozen fires are in the vicinity of Tanana. Even though only a few are near the town's boundaries, Casey said, "They're gonna be in smoke for a long time."
Smoke is proving to be a huge logistical issue, he said. Managers must be extra diligent not to put crews where they can't resupply or extract them, and surveys become impossible. "They're (managers) not gonna put people into an area with extreme fire danger if they can't support them," Casey said.
Even on established runways smoke is an issue — a plane with fire crews was rerouted from Fort Wainwright to Fairbanks International Airport on Tuesday because of smoke.
Smoke and flames were visible from Milepost 290 of the Parks Highway because of a flare-up in the Fish Creek Fire, part of the multiple-fire Rex Complex. The fire increased more than 100 acres on the northwest corner, threatening one structure. The command center at Anderson School also was powerless for a period of time after a semi truck clipped a transformer.
Three large plumes of smoke rose from the nearly 17,000-acre Aggie Creek Fire on Monday night, during which time air tankers dropped retardant loads on the fire for four hours. Recommended evacuations were lifted Tuesday for the Tatalina Subdivision and Globe Creek camp. Because of the fire's proximity to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, Elliott Highway and structures, 641 personnel have been assigned to the blaze.
"In the last week, even with the rain, we've doubled the number of people on that fire," Casey said.
Crew numbers have also grown in Nulato and now total 212. The Nulato Fire is active on northeast and southwest flanks, but progress is being made with fire breaks, as wide as 300 feet in some areas.
Hot and dry weather reignited already-burned portions of the West Fork Fire out Chena Hot Springs Road. That fire had been placed in monitor status, but six smokejumpers and the Alaska-based Pioneer Peaks hot shot crew were called upon to hold containment.
Two highly specialized crews called "fire-use modules" were dispatched to the 2,742-acre Deep Creek Fire, 2.5 miles south of Lake Minchumina. The modules are working to protect six structures. "These guys and gals are specifically trained to really interface with fire, push fire in a certain direction." Casey said.
Depending on winds, smoke is expected to linger around Fairbanks at least through Wednesday. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 70s, but minimal rain is forecast.
"The smoke will probably be continuing for the next several days," said Joe Kryston, a forecaster at the National Weather Service.
Alaska's worst fire seasons, by millions of acres burned
6.6 million in 2004
5 million in 1939 and 1957
4.65 million in 2005
4.5 million in 1940
4.23 million in 1969
3.65 million in 1941
3.2 million in 1990
3.1 million in 2015
2.93 million in 2009
2.3 million in 1977
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.