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FYI--Rare weather events and 'knucklehead factor' produced big blazes this summer

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  • M. Pamela Bumsted, Ph.D.
    For Your Information from the Lower Kuskokwim RC&D Council Waqaa-- www.calsnet.com/YKAlaska ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Our wildland fires up
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 2, 2002
      For Your Information from the Lower Kuskokwim RC&D Council
      Waqaa-- www.calsnet.com/YKAlaska
      Our wildland fires up here don't get much coverage, even in-state, so I
      thought some of you might be interested in this article on the economic
      effects and sustainability. Hooper Bay is part of the LKRC&D.

      Although Alaska is a large state, those of us breathing on the Bering Coast
      are also affected by the haze and smoke from Interior fires, several
      hundred miles away.

      The human killers don't get counted in wildland fires, however. Many of our
      communities have to live in outdated housing which never passed electrical
      safety codes when new; where petroleum-fueled fire trucks and ATVs often
      freeze up in winter and are therefore delayed getting to homes (and then
      the water they carry may be frozen); and where many communities have no
      running water (unless one counts the summer rain collected off roofs for
      drinking or the river water) and therefore have difficulty filling a pumper
      truck. Firefighting foams are useful, except in areas like us on the breezy
      coast where *mild* winds are often 20 mph. [Even our biggest cities such as
      Fairbanks (population of about 30,000) have a high rate of fire injuries
      and deaths, but that is another matter.]


      >Heavy fire season fuels rural economies
      >FACTORS: Rare weather events and 'knucklehead factor' produced big blazes
      >this summer.
      >By Joel Gay
      >Anchorage Daily News
      >(Published: September 2, 2002)
      >Alaska's biggest fire season in a dozen years is slowly burning out,
      >leaving a trail of ash and cash as the forests cool.
      >More than 2.2 million acres burned this summer, the highest acreage since
      >1990 and the fifth most destructive fire season since records began being
      >kept in 1955, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in
      >But while a handful of buildings went up in flames and smoky skies
      >irritated eyes and lungs from Fairbanks to Homer, the burning forests also
      >created hundreds of jobs and healthier forest ecosystems that soon could
      >yield higher moose populations.
      >Fire officials are still wondering why summer 2002 was such a scorcher,
      >said Pat Houghton, intelligence officer with the Alaska Fire Service in
      >"We suspect two very unusual weather events," he said. "Sometimes you can
      >go three or four summers without seeing one of them."
      >The first was the spring runoff. The winter didn't set any records for
      >precipitation in Interior Alaska, but April was one of the wettest,
      >Houghton said. No one is quite sure what happened, but it appears that a
      >winter's worth of precipitation ran off more quickly than usual.
      >A few weeks later the second big weather factor shaped up, Houghton said.
      >A high-pressure zone descended out of the Arctic and sucked the moisture
      >out of Interior Alaska.
      >"It was one of the strongest and driest we ever will see," he said, "and
      >it got bigger and stronger every day."
      >It's not unusual to have two or three warm, sunny days in May, Houghton
      >said, "but it's really rare to have seven or eight in a row with
      >temperatures into the 80s."
      >With Alaska perfectly prepared for a big fire season, the corker was what
      >Houghton called the knucklehead factor. In 25 years of Alaska
      >firefighting, he said, "I've never seen worse luck."
      >Biologists firing noisemaker shotgun shells ignited the Vinasale fire,
      >which burned 209,000 acres. A few days later, the rear axle on a truck
      >driving the Elliott Highway from Minto to Fairbanks seized up, sending a
      >shower of sparks into tinder-dry grass and spawning the Mile 78 fire. It
      >torched 115,000 acres.
      >And because of the wet, cool spring weather just a month earlier, "people
      >were doing stupid things," Houghton said, such as burning without permits
      >and letting their trash barrels burn unattended.
      >By midsummer, fires were burning all over Western and Interior Alaska,
      >sending plumes of smoke into population centers and walls of flame toward
      >rural communities. The Elliott Highway was closed for periods, Minto was
      >evacuated and McGrath was on pins and needles, waiting to see which way
      >the wind would blow.
      >In a typical summer, the fire season starts winding down in early August
      >as the rainy season begins. But another big high-pressure zone settled in,
      >bringing Interior temperatures into the 90s and humidity as low as 10 percent.
      >Even when that weather system broke, "we never got a season-ending (rain)
      >. . . that puts things out," Houghton said. "The fires would lay up, the
      >weather would get sunny, and then it would get up and go again."
      >More than 500 fires burned this summer, but the hallmark of 2002 was the
      >number of big fires. Four fires burned more than 100,000 acres each, and
      >three others topped the 200,000-acre mark. "We don't usually get that many
      >big fires," Houghton said.
      >Unlike most Western states, Alaska allows many fires to burn. Managers
      >analyze new fires to see where they might go. If the area doesn't contain
      >valuable property, they let the fires burn, said Bill Beebe, who manages
      >wildland firefighting in the state's coastal region.
      >"We want fire out there," Beebe said in June, because most forests are
      >fire-dependent ecosystems and need occasional burns to keep them healthy.
      >In much of rural Alaska, forests are a patchwork, with hardwoods like
      >birch or aspen intermixed with grass, shrubs and spruce, said Dale
      >Haggstrom, the fire and habitat management coordinator for the Alaska
      >Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. A forest fire may severely burn
      >some areas but leave others unscathed.
      >"It's an ever-changing mosaic, a patchiness, that really is good," he
      >said, because it allows for varied wildlife. Different animals thrive in
      >different habitats and together form a complex food chain that supports
      >all of them. Fires, he said, "are almost always a benefit."
      >The 209,000-acre Vinasale fire near McGrath was particularly welcome and
      >could soon pay handsome dividends, said Rod Boertje, a Fish and Game
      >biologist who concentrates on predator-prey relationships.
      >His studies show that predators such as bears and wolves are less
      >efficient moose hunters after forest fires clean out the vegetation in an
      >area. No one understands exactly why, he said, "but somehow, moose seem to
      >survive better in burned areas than in nonburned areas."
      >McGrath-area moose populations have plummeted, and predation by bears and
      >wolves is suspected as the primary cause.
      >Trappers may see fewer fur-bearing animals in the short term, Haggstrom
      >said, but that will change quickly. New grasses and shrubs will fuel a
      >population explosion of voles and mice, which then will support more
      >martens, foxes and other small predators.
      >If fires are essential to forest health, they have become a mainstay of
      >the economic health of many rural Alaska communities, said Brigitta
      >Windisch- Cole, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor.
      >"For many, it often represents the only job opportunity for people to earn
      >cash," she said. Though a firefighter's annual income may not be much, a
      >dollar goes a long way in a subsistence economy, she added.
      >Hooper Bay has been sending crews to fight fires for as long as Elmer
      >Simon can remember. He is the longtime crew chief and current tribal
      >"You were always glad to see the men go, because it meant they were
      >earning money. But we were always anxious to see them return."
      >The wages earned far from home on a fire line are welcome in a small
      >village, he said. "There's not much job opportunity other than fishing and
      >Firefighters are limited to working 21 days at a time, Simon said. "A good
      >fire season is when we got to go out three or four times a season." He
      >estimated that 42 days of work would earn a firefighter $3,000 to $5,000.
      >The 2002 season was fair for the Hooper Bay crews, he said, with the crews
      >going out once or twice. "That is enough to suffice" for subsistence
      >needs, such as buying fuel and hunting supplies.
      >As welcome as the cash is, Simon said, the work itself is also enjoyable.
      >"You get to go out and see the tundra and live a camp life, which the men
      >are used to."
      >Firefighting is both a highly regimented operation that runs with military
      >precision and an institution that, at its heart, is one big family, said
      >Mary Odden, another 25-year veteran of the business. The initial attack
      >dispatcher for the Alaska Division of Forestry in McGrath, she said she
      >looks forward to fire season.
      >"It's really fun in this village of 500 people to have the fires come,"
      >she said. "It's like a city pops up," with hundreds of new residents, rows
      >of canvas tents and as many as 40 flights a day. The McGrath fire camp
      >kitchen this summer put out more than 25,000 meals, she said.
      >Firefighters come from all over Alaska and sometimes from the Lower 48,
      >depending on the summer's needs, Odden said. They travel in 16- member
      >crews, usually from individual villages. Some villages have two or three
      >crews, while others may not have any. They get called on rotation to
      >spread out the work, she said.
      >At the peak of the fire season, McGrath had upwards of 900 permanent and
      >temporary residents. "It was a huge summer," Odden said.
      >By last week, however, the town was nearly back to normal. All but one of
      >the airplanes is gone, the kitchen is quiet, and accountants are toting up
      >the costs. Final figures won't be available until December, said the BLM's
      >Houghton, but the seven big fires alone are expected to cost more than $10
      >Odden said the few remaining staffers in McGrath view the end of the
      >season with a mixture of relief and sadness. People are tired, she said,
      >and are remembering they have "real lives" somewhere else, such as the
      >chores they left in May when the first fire call came.
      >"All the pilots, all the maintenance people, the people who change the
      >sheets, emptied the trash, talked on the radios -- we're all one big
      >family," she said. "There are tears in people's eyes when it's all over."
      >But summer 2002 won't be forgotten soon, she said. "People are glad it's
      >over, but I haven't talked to anyone who would have skipped it."
      >Reporter Joel Gay can be reached at 907-257-4310 or jgay@....
      > Copyright © 2002 The Anchorage Daily News (www.adn.com)
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