Aggressive response, cautious public keeps Alaska wildfires down despite dangerous conditions

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A rapid and aggressive response to the start of Alaska wildfire season has keep burned acreage to a minimum despite persistent hot and dry weather that has keep underbrush from turning green in much of the state.

Through Sunday, Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reported 159 fires in 2015, but they had burned fewer than seven square miles.

"We've been pretty aggressive with our initial attack efforts," said spokesman Tim Mowry in Fairbanks. "When a fire has broken out, we've gotten right on top of it."

Most fires occur in summer, when lightning strikes are common. Alaska's largest burn year since record-keeping began in 1939 was 2004, when 10,900 square miles of forest burned. In the last decade, an average of 1,875 square miles of forest has burned annually.

Spring wildfires are mostly caused by people. Fires have been spaced out so that firefighters have been able to concentrate resources when one begins.

As the 555-acre Bolgen Creek Fire north of Fairbanks along the Steese Highway was winding down Wednesday, the Seaton Road House fire began and spread to both sides of the Alaska Highway about 50 miles northwest of the Canada border.

Firefighters responded with an attack with aircraft that dropped 30,000 gallons of retardant and 45,000 gallons of water.

"Just blasted it," Mowry said. It remains at 338 acres, or about a half a square mile, as about 136 people continue to mop up.

A high-pressure weather system keeping high temperatures and low humidity in place is expected to continue this week in eastern Interior Alaska. Red flag warnings remain in effect for the Yukon River Flats and surrounding uplands, Fortymile River country, the Deltana-Tanana flats, and the Eastern Alaska Range.

Other parts of the state are dry as well.

Alaska's first two lighting fires of 2015 were in southeast Alaska, where both lightning and fires are infrequent. Although they burned less than three acres, it's the only time anyone can remember that the first lighting fires occurred in the region known for a climate like that of Seattle.

"That sort of shows you how dry things are around the entire state," Mowry said. "Whenever you have concerns about fires in southeast, it's dry. It's a rainforest."

The continuing fire danger led to the movement of more firefighting assets to Alaska. Two air tankers, another water-scooping aircraft and 16 smokejumpers from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho, were brought north last week.

Some of the credit for the favorable fire season so far also has to go to Alaskans keeping camp fires small and following burn rules, Mowry said.

"Big kudos to the public because we haven't had a big fire yet even though we've got pretty critical conditions," he said. "Some of that has to be credited to the public's awareness and responsibility as far as adhering to guidelines and safe burning practices."

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