ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Wildfires driven by
warm, dry weather in May and August, have burned more than 2
million acres (800,000 hectares) of forest in Alaska this
summer, almost three times the annual average, state officials
said on Monday.
The last wildfire season to consume as much acreage in
Alaska was in 1997, said Andy Williams, spokesman for the
Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, the group of federal
and state agencies that manage wildfires.
The unusually large amount of burned forest is not viewed
as unduly alarming in the sparsely populated Arctic state, but
considered a normal part of the forest cycle.
"In terms of destruction, you really can't use that word
describing wildfires in Alaska," Williams said.
Wildfires sparked by lightning commonly burn in stands of
black spruce, which need fire to renew themselves. "It's a
natural process that is beneficial to the environment and to
the wildlife habitat," said Williams.
Property damage from the fires, mainly in the interior of
the state, was minimal with just a couple of structures lost.
Although wildfires are considered natural and allowed to
burn themselves out if they do not threaten communities, some
of this year's larger fires were started by human error.
Those include a 209,000-acre (84,000-hectare) blaze near
the Kuskokwin River village of McGrath, caused by a firecracker
shell used by a state biologist to ward off a charging moose,
and a 117,000-acre (47,000-hectare) blaze near Livengood. Those
two fires are still burning and being monitored.
Most other blazes, including a 258,000-acre
(104,000-hectare) fire west of Fairbanks, were sparked by
lightning.
As of Monday, 535 wildfires had been reported in Alaska,
and 44 were still burning, the interagency coordination center
said, but rain was reducing fire activity.
Only one fire, the 210,000-acre (85,000-hectare) Reindeer
Fire near the Yukon River village of Holy Cross in southwestern
Alaska, was still being staffed on Monday, the center said.
The biggest Alaskan fire season in recent history was 1957,
when over 5 million (two million hectares) acres burned. The
10-year average is about 757,000 acres (306,000 hectares).

Reut22:39 08-19-02