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With danger low, Alaska fire crews head south

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Casey Lasota/Alaska Division of Forestry
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By this time last year, the Kenai Peninsula was starving for rain. This year, we’re getting plenty of it, and that’s keeping wildfires down.

Wildfire danger is low enough that the Alaska Division of Forestry is comfortable sending Alaska’s fire crews out of state to help with fires burning in the Lower 48. Division of Forestry Public Information Officer Tim Mowry said that includes the Kenai Peninsula’s Yukon Crew.

"Unlike last summer, which was hot and dry, especially down in Southcentral for pretty much the entire summer from May till September, this summer we have not had any real extended hot, dry weather to really prime those fuels and dry things deep down into the duff," he said. "That’s when you tend to get fires that are much harder to extinguish and to control. This year, the fuel has been so wet down by rain and the lack of hot, dry weather that we’ve been able to initial attack most of the fires that we’ve seen, and haven’t had any real big fires especially in that urban interface like we did last year, especially with things like Swan Lake Fire and McKinley, things like that."

So far, Alaska’s gotten above-average precipitation, with below average temperatures. On the Kenai, temperatures have crested in the low to mid-70s, with fairly regular rain and cloudy days. That’s kept fuels in the wildlands fairly wet and less likely to catch fire. Mowry said that’s true across the state, even in the Interior.

As of Tuesday, only about 20.5 acres had burned on the Kenai all summer, and about 180,000 statewide. In an average year, the state burns about 650,000 acres. Last year, the state saw about 2.6 million acres burn. The season’s not over yet, but Mowry said Alaska’s on track for one of its lowest fire season in years.

"The way things are looking, I’d be very surprised if we even got close to the 200,000 acre mark," he said. "To my knowledge, this is the slowest fire season dating back to at least 2014, and that year, the Funny River Fire down in Kenai accounted for the bulk of the acres, which burned almost 200,000 acres in that fire."

The National Climate Prediction Center shows that Alaska’s likely to keep the precipitation up over the next month, too. August and September are usually pretty rainy on the peninsula, but the prediction is for above-average precipitation from the Yukon River to Southeast, to the tune of about 40 percent above average.

It’s not impossible for things to change, but if they do, the Division of Forestry is prepared to bring those wildland firefighters back. The state has also let some of its contracts for helicopters go, as they think they won’t be necessary this season, but they can re-up those if it becomes necessary. Mowry said they didn’t fly commercially—they went through the National Interagency Coordination Center, so that lessens their risk of becoming sick with COVID-19 on the way to the Lower 48. The pandemic weighed heavily on the minds of fire managers this year, he says—if the state had had a year like 2019, when huge fires burned all summer and the state brought in about 5,000 firefighters, the pandemic would have been very hard to control.

"In some respects, fire managers are breathing a big sigh of relief that we did not have a big season, because it really would have been a challenge, given the pandemic and all the steps you have to take—everything from sanitizing engines on a daily basis and helicopters and social distancing and doing all this meetings, briefings virtually," he said. "Like I said, I think a lot of folks are breathing a sigh of relief and hoping that things stay like this because it would have been a major challenge."

Because the risk is low, campers are allowed to burn dispersed campfires again, and burn permits are available for brush piles. Mowry said now may be a good time to take care of those brush piles rather than waiting until the fall or next spring, when conditions may be different. He says everyone should still practice safe burning, such as making sure there’s adequate space around fires and making sure it’s completely out before leaving.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.

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