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Weekend rains bring relief for wildfire crews in Alaska, but weather expected to later heat up


ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Rains brought relief to crews battling many Alaska wildfires over the weekend. But heading into the holiday weekend, conditions are expected to heat up, capping a record fire month.

Only two new fires were logged Sunday, according to the latest figures released Monday. But the area actively burning grew by about 257 square miles on Sunday alone — an increase attributed in part to better fire mapping conducted as improved weather tamped down smoke that previously grounded some observation flights. The fire-growth total for Sunday was revised downward from 777 square miles after fire officials discovered they released incorrect figures.

The growth is also a reflection of the spread of so many active fires, many of them in the state's interior. Nearly 2,462 square miles burned in June through Sunday — breaking the old June record of 1,802 square miles set in 2004. Fire officials also initially said Monday that 2,975 square miles had been burned this month.

As of Monday, Alaska had 612 wildfires this season, including 314 that remain active over more than 2,265 square miles, not 2,780 as first reported by officials.

There were no new evacuations over the weekend. Last week, residents in many affected communities fled in voluntary evacuations. Some displaced residents from tiny villages were taken to other communities as a precaution for elders, children and medically vulnerable people.

In the Yukon River village of Nulato, dozens of the Athabascan community's 250 residents fled on boats to other communities last week after the airport became too smoky for air evacuations because of a small fire nearby. The fire, just outside Nulato, has since grown to more than 40 square miles, but it is moving away from the village, said Paul Mountain, tribal administrator for the Nulato Tribal Council. A recent light rain also helped calm the fire a bit.

"But that doesn't mean it's over," Mountain said.

Crews are stretched thin as fire managers prioritize where to send them as some fires wind down. Multiple wildfires in the vast state are so isolated and far from populated areas that they are monitored but allowed to burn out instead of being suppressed. Of the active wildfires, for example, only 42 are staffed.

There currently are 2,791 firefighters battling Alaska wildfires, fire information spokesman Tim Mowry said. Of those, only 738 are based in Alaska, with the remaining firefighters from outside the state. A North Dakota crew expected to arrive Monday.

"We're trying to extend as many of these crews as we can, to stay in Alaska," Mowry said. "But with activity picking up down there (lower 48), that's not going to happen in some cases."

As for the coming days, there's a chance for more rain Tuesday night through early Thursday in parts of the southeast interior, said National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Metzger in Fairbanks.

"I should also note that after Thursday, we look to develop a significant warming trend for the interior," Metzger said, adding that corresponding dry conditions also are expected.

Bans on fireworks and open burning remain in place. But there's a concern among fire managers that illegal fireworks displays set off in July 4th celebrations could spark more fires. After all, human-caused fires have been ignited despite the burn ban.

"A little bit of rain doesn't do much to put out big fires," Mowry said.

This story has been updated to correct the number of square miles burned on Sunday, the total burned this month and how many square miles are burning Monday. Initial figures were incorrect from fire officials.

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