Recent wildland fires in Dillingham and Togiak highlight dangerous period of human-caused fires prior to spring green-up.
Audio transcript below ...
Southwest Alaska is in a period of high fire danger, according to state officials. This is the second year in a row that a mild winter with low snow pack, coupled with warm and dry spring, has raised the threat of wildland fires to break out.
Tom Dean is acting fire management officer at McGrath, which handles wildland firefighting for Southwest Alaska. He has flown surveys of the area in the past few weeks.
"It's very dry, everywhere. You can see there's not as much as water as you'd normally see, some of the sloughs are dry. So there's a bit of a drought going on, and of course not having a lot of snow, it doesn't compact those fuels, the grass and the tundra," said Dean.
Dean says the light flashy fuels, like the tundra and grass common in the region, can dry out very quickly in the sunlight. Even after a strong rain, they can dry out very quick in the wind and sunshine and become very prone to burning.
"What you have down in your area there, Dillingham, Lake Clark, King Salmon, is very dry, very flashy fuels that will change very quickly to the conditions, sunlight and wind, where as other fuels will take a lot longer to dry out."
Dillingham had a small wildland fire on April 15 that burned a few acres. A few days later on April 17, some sparks from a burn box at the Togiak Landfill sparked a fire that quickly burned 190 acres. A state press release said about 20 volunteers from the village tried to control the fire, but the strong winds that Friday spread rapidly, thankfully away from the village. It was actually a wind change and later some rain and snow that put that fire. No property was reported damage.
Dean says this is the season, before green-up, when humans cause the majority of wildland fires, usually from any type of open burning.
"The biggest mistake, and I think again the message we want to get to the public is, first of all, if it's very warm out, and dry, and the wind is blowing, don't burn. Just don't do it. Wait for the wind to die down, wait for the clouds to come out. And then if you are going to burn, make sure you physically stay there. That way if the wind comes out, you can just put the fire out. Second to that, not only be there, but have some water on hand. And a rake or a shovel too."
The state is recommending a high level of caution with any open burning, as well as with off road vehicles and recreational activities that could start a wildlife. Officials with Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks are asking the same, and on Tuesday the City of Dillingham reinstated its ban on any open burning until further notice.
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