Alaska fire season off to a blazing start

RACHEL D'ORO

Associated Press


ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaska's fire season has already heated up, with crews scrambling to battle numerous blazes, including a fire from last year's record season that smoldered all winter.

Fire managers said Sunday the outbreaks in Homer, Interior Alaska and Hoonah hit even before some crews have completed their annual training and safety refresher courses held at the beginning of each season.

"Mother Nature is throwing us a curve this year," said John See, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry. "We're getting more challenging fires like what we usually would be seeing in a few weeks."

About 80 firefighters were tackling a 3,270-acre wildfire in Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, and fire managers requested more help. The fire was reported Friday afternoon and quickly doubled in size. But half of the crews didn't arrive until a full day later.

"This is the time of year a lot of crews are finishing up their training and safety refreshers, so it's hard to put together all the resources," Kris Eriksen, a forestry division spokeswoman. "It takes longer than it would if we were completely ready."

Available crews concentrated on the southern end about two miles from a residential subdivision, even though the western perimeter was more active. That area is of less concern because there's no immediate populated area, Eriksen said.

In Interior Alaska, a dozen firefighters worked Sunday on putting out a three-acre flare-up from a wildfire that contributed to the record 6.7 million acres burned in the state last year.

"We don't see any other new source for the ignition," said Marsha Henderson, a state forestry division spokeswoman. "Last fall, some fires were still burning when it started to snow."

As of Sunday, only one of two air tankers chartered from Canada had arrived. The other won't be delivered until May 10, Henderson said. The tanker was immediately in demand, with three new large Interior fires reported Sunday.

The plane, which drops flame retardant, was heading to Homer when it was diverted to a 40-acre fire in Nenana. Before arriving there, the plane was diverted to a 150-acre fire near Delta Junction, then to a 15-acre blaze threatening homes, See said.

"In terms of the number of fires, we're kind of on track, but typically this early we see very small fires, usually ones that escape from debris burns," See said.

In Southeast Alaska, crews were mopping up the remains of a 400-acre wildfire that came within 250 yards of a Christian farming community about three miles south of Hoonah.

The 400-acre blaze forced 15 members of the Mount Bether Bible Center to flee Friday. They were allowed to return Saturday night after crews contained the fire, said John Baldwin, Hoonah district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

The region's fire season usually runs from mid-April into June, but area crews aren't scheduled to begin their refresher training for another week, Baldwin said. "We're still carrying over from last year's training," he said.