Alaska Wildfires Present Unique Challenges For Firefighters

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) -- Alaska wildfires have a quirky nature all their own, presenting unusual challenges and a few advantages to crews during the fire season.

Daylight almost round-the-clock in summer, little fluctuation between the high and low temperatures, a wealth of flammable plant life, few roads and the state's remote vastness are part of the recipe for a stubborn blaze. Alaska has them all, said Allen Chrisman, incident commander of the 200,000-acre Wolf Creek fire, 50 miles northeast of Fairbanks. He is part of an elite fire management team from the Lower 48 assigned to the Interior fire.

``One of the biggest challenges here is trying to detect fires in such a large expanse,'' said Chrisman, who is based in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. ``The scale here is so incredible it's out of whack with anything in the Lower 48. One mile there is like 500 miles here.''

Such has been the case with five huge blazes currently burning in the state, including the nation's top two priority wildfires, the 312,000-acre Boundary fire and the Wolf Creek fire.

The five fires _ which also include the Eagle, Taylor and Solstice complexes _ have burned about 1.6 million acres of forest and tundra, totaling more than $8.1 million in firefighting costs and displacing hundreds of people living in remote homes and cabins.

With winds expected to pick up Tuesday, an evacuation order remained in effect for 277 homes and 12 businesses threatened by the Boundary fire, although a few residents have chosen to return home. Fire information officer Frances Reynolds said firefighters would continue to focus Tuesday on protecting homes in the area.

One of the problems for crews is getting an accurate read on the perimeter of a fire when thick smoke limits the use aerial mapping, fire managers said.

Another challenge is the fire behavior itself. It's different from anywhere else, said Pat Garbutt, a fire behavior analyst assigned to the Wolf Creek fire on her first trip to the Far North.

``It's long been my dream to be in Alaska because fires here are totally unique,'' said Garbutt, who lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Monday brought sporadic rain showers to the area. But Garbutt said it would take a half-inch of rain over a three-day period to significantly slow the advance of Interior fires. Spurts of rain have no effect if moss and lichen get a chance to quickly dry at the base of the fast-burning black spruce.

``The moss and lichen are so light and porous, they could burn again 20 minutes after it stopped raining,'' she said. ``I call it the roller-coaster effect.''

And once the moss gets going, it torches black spruce, one at a time, until the blaze gains momentum under even light winds.

Another Alaska difference is long summer daylight hours - currently 21 hours in this part of the Interior. It means more time to schedule crews on fire lines. Battling fires is dangerous after dark, particularly in burned areas where crews risk being struck by falling trees. Light is also necessary for aircraft water drops.

But longer days also mean less overnight humidity, said Jack Conner, a spokesman for the Wolf Creek fire management team.

``With this type of radiant conductive heat, there is the potential for more fire behavior,'' said Conner, who is based in Billings, Mont. ``We've seen trees torching at midnight. That would be unusual in the Lower 48.''

Alaska's limited road system makes it a costly challenge to get food, supplies and equipment to crews. It's also difficult for firefighters to reach remote cabins. In the Wolf Creek fire, at least five cabins burned because no one could get to them in time.

No evacuations have been ordered in the Wolf Creek fire, but fire managers have told residents and vacationers they should be prepared to go quickly to the resort's airfield _ the designated safety zone _ if conditions take a serious turn for the worse.

There were 68 active fires in Alaska on Monday, 12 of which were being fought. The rest were being monitored. So far this year, wildfires have burned more than 2 million acres in the state.