With nearly 3 million acres burned, rainy weather slows Alaska wildfires

Outside crews are demobilizing the Lime Complex, a group of 18 wildfires that have burned more than 865,000 acres in southwest Alaska. (Photo by Bryan Quimby/Alaska Incident Management Team of Gannett Glacier)

The cool, rainy weather that started in much of Alaska last week has dampened this year’s fire season, which was set to become one of the worst in history. State and federal agencies are sending some crews home, but officials warn the fires could flare up again after a day or two of dry, warm weather.

Hot and dry weather earlier this summer created the perfect conditions for the wildfires that burned nearly 3 million acres in Alaska this year, making it the sixth worst fire season on record. In response, agencies have mobilized 2,000 firefighters from across the state and beyond. And they were about to take the state’s fire safety rating to the highest level.

“We are now at four o’clock,” said Sam Harrell, spokesman for the Forestry Service. “Five is the top. Last week and the week before we were planning level five.”

Harrell says that all changed in the past week or so after thunderstorms that spawned dry lightning finally started producing rain.

“Tomorrow morning Alaska will drop to a readiness level of three,” he said.

In response to the weather change, officials have lowered fire hazards in many areas and lifted the state-wide ban on burns.

Harrell says some of the states’ elite fire incident management teams are preparing to pack up and go home.

“Fire season is picking up in the Lower 48 and there is demand for resources,” he said. “Once they finish their assignment in Alaska, we demobilize them back to the Lower 48, or back to Canada, depending on where they come from.”

That’s what’s happening with the Lime Complex, a series of 18 wildfires that have burned more than 865,000 acres in southwest Alaska. Harrell says forest officials also hope to soon take over management of the 38,000-acre Minto Lakes Fire, northwest of Fairbanks.

He says the management of the 61,000 hectare fires in the Middle Tanana Complex, which burn between Salcha and Delta Junction, is also being cut.

“The fires are not increasing and so the management team there has moved to a smaller group, from a type 2 incident management team to a type 3,” Harrell said.

The cool weather has slowed down the 72,000-acre bright fire that burns west of Anderson. And Harrell says firefighters there want to take the opportunity to limit the fire’s growth.

“They are still dealing with some active parts of the line on that fire. And since some of these other fires don’t require crews, we’re diverting them to Clear,” he said.

Harrell says firefighters remain cautious because they know it’s possible that warm, dry weather could return. He says that’s happened in recent fire seasons that are a lot like this one.

“In our previous large acreage years, those summers went like this. We would have our typical rest at this time of year, only to dry it out in August and September,” he said.

Harrell says the fire season is only half over and the Forestry Division will continue to suppress high-priority wildfires well into the fall.