Alaskan Fire Season Ends, But Wildfires Continue To Burn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- This week typically marks the beginning of the end for Alaska's fire season, but as the firefighters in the Interior say, this year has been anything but typical.

It's about the third week of July that the weather pattern shifts and Bering Sea winds bring rain and humidity, making wildfires more manageable, said Aaron Tyburski, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

No such relief is in sight for this record-setting year in which 117 wildfires continue to blaze across the state.

``It is abnormal that we haven't seen that yet,'' Tyburski said.

The tab for the wildfire season is now estimated at $31.2 million, according to Callie Berg, a fire information officer with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. More than 3.85 million acres have burned across Alaska, making it the third-largest season since the state began keeping track.

And more blazes are igniting. Lightning strikes have touched off eight fires in the Interior since Monday. One new blaze 29 miles north of Fairbanks spread from 80 acres on Monday to 4,500 acres Wednesday, Berg said.

No homes were immediately threatened by the Aggie 2 fire, but it was just 10 miles away from another fire that caused an evacuation directive to be issued for the rural subdivision of Haystack on Monday.

The Haystack subdivision is about a mile east of the Elliott Highway and about 20 miles north of Fairbanks.

Roughly half of the 80 homes in the subdivision were empty on Wednesday, Berg said. Some of the residents stayed in a Red Cross shelter in a Fairbanks middle school, but most found beds in hotels or private homes.

Greg Williams, the Red Cross' state director for disaster services, said 12 people slept in the shelter Tuesday night and 37 people have registered there. Most come to eat and shower, then leave, he said.

``They're in and out like rubber balls against a wall,'' Williams said.

The Boundary fire was three miles from Haystack on Wednesday, and fire crews that afternoon began burning vegetation away from a bulldozer line that separated the homes from the forest, Berg said.

The temperature inversion that had trapped the smoke close to the ground and helped slow the fire's spread had largely dissipated by Wednesday afternoon, Berg said.

``That clear air has allowed us conduct the burnout operation. However, fire behavior tends to increase when lifts,'' Berg said.

Winds blowing from the southwest and overnight thunderstorms helped keep the 485,600-acre fire away from Haystack. Southwesterly winds and scattered thunderstorms are forecast for the next couple of days, according to the National Weather Service.

``It's going to push the fire back toward the northeast, away from residential areas,'' Berg said.

The wind also cleared the smoke that had been hanging over Fairbanks earlier this week and prompted the city to issue a warning for children and the elderly to stay inside. On Wednesday, the Fairbanks North Star Borough's air quality was moderate to unhealthy for people with respiratory problems, children and the elderly.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reported diminished fire activity in many of the state's other major fire complexes early Wednesday due to smoke cover and higher humidity.

At least 641 homes, 85 commercial properties and 296 other structures across the state remain at risk, according to the Alaska National Guard.

Sixteen secondary residences or cabins, two commercial properties and 17 other structures have been destroyed so far.

More than 2,700 people are working the fires in Alaska. No major injuries have been reported, Berg said.