Alaskan Fire Season Off To A Slow Start

FORT WAINWRIGHT (AP) -- Inside the smokejumpers' compound at the Alaska Fire Service headquarters, a few of the men who normally jump out of airplanes into the heart of wildfires instead were hunched over sewing machines, making intricate stitches in parachutes.

Many of their comrades were outside tending a vegetable garden. On a separate lawn, the Chena Hot Shots crew sat in full firefighter regalia, taking files to their axes in an exercise that served as much to kill time as maintain equipment.

A month and a half after reporting for duty, many of the firefighters had not seen any action.

``Right now, we're just finishing our sixth week of waiting,'' said Charles Ned, a member of the Chena Hot Shots.

Though fire activity picked up this week, the season this year has gotten off a slow start. Many of the crews and equipment for the Bureau of Land Management, which bases it firefighting operations at Fort Wainwright and oversees wildland fires in the northern half of Alaska, saw their first action of the year when fires flared up last weekend.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reported Wednesday that 149 fires have ignited in the state so far this year. That's fewer fires by June 9 than in any of the previous five years.

Most of the fires have been small blazes handled by the Division of Forestry. The 10,910-acre Uvgoon Creek Fire, near Noatak in northwest Alaska, has accounted for most of the 12,926 acres that have burned statewide this year.

The acreage total for this year is comparable to last year, when 13,912 acres had burned up to this point as the result of 246 fires.

In 2002, 301 fires had ignited, burning more than 431,000 acres.

``It's not that far off, but it is a pretty low year,'' said Sue Christensen, intelligence coordinator with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

Smokejumpers have responded to fires in recent days, including the 1,275-acre Dugan Hills Fire, about 15 miles southwest of Minto, and the 26.5-acre South Fork Fire, about 5 miles southeast of Bettles. The CL215 aircraft _ medium-sized, water-scooping airplanes _ were used for the first time Monday on those fires.

The Chena Hot Shots crew finally got sent to a fire northwest of Fort Yukon. The Christian River Fire, about 13 miles from Fort Yukon, was declared out Tuesday night.

Just as the season started flaring up, cooler weather and precipitation made firefighters' jobs easier, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reported Wednesday. The conditions aided firefighters as they made progress toward controlling the fires near Bettles and Minto, likely meaning more free time soon if new blazes do not ignite.

``To tell you the truth, we don't deal so well'' with the waiting, said Chris Marabetta, 26, a member of the crew's chain saw team. ``We maintain ourselves with physical training every day and take care of our equipment. But by and large, it's just waiting.''

At the smokejumpers' facility on Fort Wainwright, a large whiteboard displays a rotation system outlining the next eight people who must be prepared to board a plane on a moment's notice, parachute into a fire anywhere in the state and fight the blaze from the ground.

Within two minutes of an operator pressing a big red button, the eight crew members are expected to be dressed in more than 90 pounds of equipment and be ready for takeoff in a plane parked just outside the building.