News-Miner opinion: A summer that two weeks ago looked like it might surpass 2004 as Alaska’s worst ever for wildfires has stalled in its tracks as weather lent fire crews a helping hand. That’s great news for Interior residents, many of whom experienced on-and-off bouts of thick smoke that clouded the sky and reddened eyes in late June and early July. As rains have continued this week, the borough lifted its longstanding fireworks ban. While it’s too early yet to declare fire season over, especially as many crews continue to make inroads against existing fires, it appears the Interior has been lucky during a summer that could have been much worse.
At the summer’s outset, fire danger was extreme across the state. After major fires started near Willow and on the Kenai Peninsula and hot, dry weather persisted through mid-June in the Tanana Valley, the question wasn’t whether the Interior would see a serious blaze, but when and where it would happen.
The answer, it turned out, was nearly everywhere, seemingly all at once. On a storm-filled solstice weekend, dozens of Interior fires erupted after lightning storms swept across the region. Fortunately, most fires close to Fairbanks were extinguished quickly, but other communities weren’t so lucky. The villages of Tanana and Nulato were evacuated — in the case of the latter, dozens of residents had to be taken from the village by boat because the town airstrip was socked in with smoke. In Tanana, fires on three sides of the community forced an exodus of residents, though some stayed to battle the blazes.
For the most part, the Interior got lucky. Shifting winds helped crews get an upper hand in Tanana and Nulato, sparing the villages. Throughout the Tanana Valley, the story was similar: A swift response quelled the Healy Lake fires and kept them from consuming cabins on the lakeshore. The Anaconda Creek fire was stopped before it threatened Two Rivers residents for the third time in three years. The Rex Complex fires were kept away from Anderson and Clear.
Much of the Interior’s fortune in avoiding catastrophic fire outcomes wasn’t providential, but came at the hands of thousands members of wildland fire crews. Those crews hailed both from within Alaska and from 44 of the 49 other U.S. states, a reflection of the seriousness of Alaska’s fire season. Their efforts proved instrumental in halting fires’ encroachment on threatened communities, and many residents across the state owe the continued existence of their homes to the crews’ good work.
Recently, weather has given residents reason to believe the worst of the fire season may be over. Fire acreage, which was near five million acres in mid-July, has barely budged during the past two weeks and was even adjusted downward by about 50,000 acres a few days ago when better mapping revealed some fires were smaller than expected. In Fairbanks, more than an inch of rain fell on Monday and Tuesday.
But fires have a way of springing to life when you least expect it, and many fire crews are still on the line establishing perimeters, defending property and ensuring blazes don’t jump lines to endanger residents.
State and local officials should be credited with good judgment in establishing burning and fireworks restrictions early in the summer and not relaxing them until it was clear fire danger had eased. For their part, residents should be commended for being wary of potential fire causes and exercising safe behavior during a dry July 4th weekend.
We’re not out of the woods yet, and there’s still plenty of reason to exercise caution with regard to fire sources. But thanks to a combined effort by crews, officials and residents, the Interior’s 2015 fire season hasn’t been nearly as disastrous as it could have.