Fire Season Arrives Early and Vigorous In Alaska's National Parks

Though the wildfire season really hasn't started in the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, or Cascade ranges, its been well under way in Alaska, where national park fire managers are reporting unusual fire behavior.

"Statewide, fire managers were observing fire activity in May that they usually see in June and early July," says Morgan Warthin, the National Park Service's regional fire communication and education specialist in Alaska. "Alaska had a warm May. By the end of May 261 fires had burned 260,000 acres. Typically, Alaska has lots of fires in May, but not lots of acres. For instance, last year at the end of May we had 193 fires and 98,163 acres."

Of particular interest is the Ernie Creek Fire in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. This fire, which covers only about 111 acres, is the fourth most northerly fire reported in the preserve since records began in 1950.

Not all the fires are new starts this year. One that rekindled in Denali National Park and Preserve is the Foraker River Fire, which is smoldering 100 miles west of the park headquarters.

"They happen once in a while in Alaska," Mr. Warthin said of fires that rekindle once winter passes. "Different than the Lower 48, many Alaskan fires burn for long durations (a couple months) and can grow quite large. When they burn for long periods of time, fire burns deep below the tundra/forest floor where there is adequate oxygen, duff/decomposing vegetation for it to smolder all winter.

"Come spring when conditions are dry and warm, those fires can resurface and spring back to life," he said.

While the Foraker Fire at last check was burning on only about one-tenth of an acre, the accompanying map shows how vigorous the fire activity is around Denali. Among them is the Toklat 2 fire, another hold-over fire just north of the park that is closing in on 160,000 acres burned.

Three fires are burning in Yukon-Charley: the Silvia Creek Fire, at 221 acres; the Waterfall Fire, at 1,573 acres, and; the Witch Mountain Fire, at 817 acres. All three were natural starts, according to the Park Service.