2015 Alaskan wildfire tally below normal

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A State Division of Forestry air tanker works the Sockeye fire north of Kashwitna Lake on Sunday, June 14, 2015, near Willow, Alaska.  (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News via AP)
A State Division of Forestry air tanker works the Sockeye fire north of Kashwitna Lake on Sunday, June 14, 2015, near Willow, Alaska. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News via AP)
So far this year, about 78,000 acres have burned in 280 fires in Alaska.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually below normal. That’s according to Pete Buist, a public information officer for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. Buist has worked on fires in Alaska and the rest of the country for 48 seasons.

Buist says the fire season in the state usually unfolds in a predictable pattern.

Lori: How does this season compare to other years in Alaska? 

Pete: It’s early, actually closing in on mid-season. Year-to-date acres is 78,000, year-to date-number of fires is 280 –that’s fairly low compared to busy years, that’s fairly low. Early in the season, we have a lot of fires that are human caused fires and later in the season, lightening caused, that happens about now, it actually a little late this year. So we’re on the low side in terms of numbers of starts and numbers of acres.

Lori: Is that surprising given how dry it is? Didn’t have a lot of snow last winter and dry spring, were you anticipating it would be worse by this time?

Pete: At my age, I don’t anticipate, I wait and see what happens, however we have folks, it’s called the predictive services section, who do computer models and they had predicted a pretty busy season, not just in Alaska but through the Lower 48, so they had predicted a heavy season. That has not transpired so far, but interestingly, for example, this is very much the way 2004 started out which turned out to be our record year, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 million acres burning in Alaska alone.

Lori: Are there signs we could be heading toward something similar?

Pete: I don’t think so. We’re busy right now, we’re not as busy as we get, but we’re busy and the lightning season is coming on, we’re obviously going to get busier for a while, but despite the dire predictions, there’s really no way to accurately come up with what’s going to happen next week, much less what’s going to happen next month. And normally by a month from now, our fire season is pretty much over.

Lori: What about the location of the fires? Are there more fires burning farther south this year?

Pete: That is something that I’ve observed, that there is a little more activity in Southcentral Alaska, normally places like the Kenai and the Mat-Su, the fire danger is the greatest between breakup and green up and when we’ve got wind in the spring, that sort of thing, it’s very busy down there, this year that seems to have extended a bit farther into the season.

Lori: How unusual is it to have several fires threatening primary structures?

Pete: It’s fairly unusual in Alaska just because we don’t have that many built up areas. But certainly there is some pressure on the fire suppression agencies because of the fires that happen to be by built up areas.

Lori: You have the perspective of a long tenure in fire work, working on fire information, based on what’s happening right now, how worried are you for the rest of the summer?

Pete: As I say, by a month from now, normally we’re into more precipitation and lightning becomes less of a problem. I have no reason to think that won’t happen this year, but I suspect we’re going to have a busy two or three weeks before we get to that point.

Lori: We saw burn bans coming out, being put in place just yesterday, which seems puzzling, in a dry spring and early summer like this, why isn’t most of the state under a burn ban already?

Pete: Well, the conditions vary from one place to another and until we have a problem, we don’t like to restrict people. If it gets to the point where our initial attack resources are a little thin and we’re adamant that we don’t need any more new starts and we’ve got some lightning fires, we don’t like to tell people that you can’t burn or you can’t do this or that, people in Alaska are better than people in lots of places about not doing unsafe things, so we’d rather not restrict people but if it gets to the point we have to, we will.

Lori: That’s an interesting point that people here seem to be more fire aware and make better decisions about making sure their campfires are out. Is that what you’re saying?

Pete: That’s been my experience, we all do lots of camping, lots of fishing and we have campfires and know how to take care of them, but in any subset of the population, there’s that few percentage points of folks who are not that careful and they’re the ones that cause the problems.

Lori: The Fourth of July is coming up, how concerned are you about fireworks this year?

Pete: Obviously we don’t need any new starts when we’re as busy as we are. We always mount a small campaign to tell people to be careful about use of fireworks and I’m sure that will be the case again this year, particularly if we’re spread even more thin, we don’t need any new starts.

Lori: We’ve heard that the sockeye fire has been determined to be human caused, but there’s no information yet, about what that may have been. Is there anything new that’s being discovered about pinpointing that?

Pete: There’s investigators working on that and it will probably take a while. I used to be a fire investigator myself and you start with the full array of what it could be and you start eliminating things and what you’re left with would be the cause of the fire. So it’s not always, we think it’s this and here’s some evidence so we’ll call it that. You have to rule out the other things it could have been. So the first thing is, for example, if there’s no lightning in the area, chances are it wasn’t lightning, then when it comes down to human caused, there’s lots of ways that humans cause fires, most inadvertent but if this particular fire is human caused, there’s millions of ways it could have been started. They’re going to winnow through what’s there and discard the things that don’t fit and hopefully come up with a cause.

Lori: It seems like that must be really difficult work. We were hearing reports today from reporters who were in the field, about vehicles being melted by the heat at some places that had burned. How difficult is it, given what’s left, to make after a fire goes through to make that determination?

Pete: Well, interestingly, the origin of a fire is not always burned as completely as downwind from where the fire got bigger and faster and hotter. So you work with burn patterns and work your way back and try and identify where that origin was and then you look for clues and evidence at that origin. But for example, if you were to go out and start a fire with a match or a BIC lighter, that fire is not going to be hundreds and hundreds of degrees at that point. Where it goes and where it is in an hour or so will be much hotter. So very often there is a lot of evidence left at the origin itself.

The bottom line it’s not an unusual year, but it’s not over yet, so we’ll see what happens and we’ll all be able to give a better evaluation at the end of whether it was unusual.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Soot from Canadian wildfires may have increased Greenland ice melt, Radio Canada International

Finland: Smoke from Russian fires detected in Finland, Yle News

Russia: Smoke from Russian fires detected in Finland, Yle News

Sweden:  Swedish Biologists: “Turn forest fire area into nature reserve”, Radio Sweden

United States:  Hundreds of sled dogs rescued from Alaska wildfires, Alaska Dispatch News

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