ANCHORAGE — A spark from a snowmobile ignited dry grass south of a Bering Sea village, lighting up tundra and signaling that Alaska’s wildfire season is in full swing.
The freak fire Sunday covered 35 acres south of Unalakleet before smokejumpers arrived. It grew to 196 acres before they contained it.
The fire near the Yupik village 148 miles southeast of Nome was one of 13 weekend conflagrations that prompted the Alaska Division of Forestry to warn people not to be casual with outdoor fires.
“At this time of year, with all this dead, dry grass and brush, this is really some of the driest parts of the year,” spokesman Tim Mowry said from his office in Fairbanks. “You don’t have high temperatures but there are no green plants putting moisture into the atmosphere.”
Relative humidity this week is just 10% to 20%, he said.
“Anytime you get below 20%, that’s pretty dry,” he said.
Alaska generally has two wildfire seasons. Spring fires before vegetation has “greened up” often are connected to mistakes made by people burning grass or brush. Many are small compared to summer lightning fires than can burn thousands of square miles of wilderness forest. However, early season fires have the potential for significant monetary damage if they burn structures.
Last year’s leaves, spruce needles and dead grass are classified as fine fuels. An ember from a burn barrel can flash into a wildfire even without wind, Mowry said.
“If you’re not prepared for that, it can really take off,” he said. “Even if you are prepared, it would be hard to stop if there’s a wind. It’s just a really volatile time right now.”
All 13 weekend fires were human-caused. All but two were on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage or in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage.
A 2.5-acre fire Saturday near Ninilchik forced residents to evacuate four homes. One house was damaged but saved by firefighters from local departments and the Division of Forestry.
North of Anchorage, state forestry firefighters responded to six fires that escaped from burn barrels or debris burns. One damaged a trailer home and destroyed a shed. Another burned a wooden fence. A homeowner attempted to extinguish the fire but could not because water in his garden hose was frozen.
Firefighters extinguished an escaped lawn burn Sunday in the village of Northway.
State forestry officials issued burn suspensions for the Kenai Peninsula, Delta and Tok. The suspensions prohibit open debris burning and the use of burn barrels. Camp fires less than 3 feet in diameter are allowed.
As of Monday morning, 63 fires had burned 293 acres around the state so far this year, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.
• By DAN JOLING, Associated Press