1,900-acre tundra fire continues to burn in Northwest Alaska despite cold and snow

The roughly 1, 900-acre Zane Hills fire is burning in tundra in the Selawik Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The roughly 1,900-acre Zane Hills fire is burning in tundra in the Selawik Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

April 20, 2017 – Even with cool temperatures and snow lingering in many parts of the state, an estimated 1,900-acre fire continues to burn in an exposed patch of tundra in the Selawik National Refuge in the Northwest Arctic this week. The tundra fire was spotted by BLM Alaska Fire Service personnel from the Galena Zone flying to Noorvik Tuesday to conduct wildland firefighter refresher training and the pack test. The Zane Hills fire as it was named, is surrounded by snow that will more than likely keep it getting much larger. The fire was put on monitor status because it’s burning in a limited suppression area and isn’t threatening any known sites of value. The fire is suspected of being human caused and snowmachine tracks were spotted going through the area, however, whether it was started by an unattended campfire or a mechanical issue with a snogo is unknown.

Regardless, it’s a stark reminder that fire season is upon us despite snow still covering many parts of Alaska. Snow is melting across the state, leaving patches of tundra exposed and drying in the long days of sunshine. That grass is dry and especially susceptible to burning.

“We still have to practice good fire safety,” said Doug Alexander, the regional fire management coordinator for the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service Alaska Region which includes the refuge where the Zane Hills fire is burning. “It’s something that needs to be practiced 12 months out of the year. We understand that this fire isn’t going very far at this time of year, but one of these days these fires are going to get much larger.”
The conditions have been favorable for prescribed burns in snow free areas on military lands near Delta Junction. BLM AFS Military Zone Fire Management Officer Russ Long said there was more snow this winter than in recent years, however, it hasn’t necessarily produced more moisture. Other BLM AFS fire managers echo similar sentiments, describing tundra grass as similar to being freeze dried this winter.

The National Interagency Coordination Center’s Predictive Services expects Alaska will have a normal fire season in Alaska, but did point out portions of the southwest and eastern Interior, the Mat-Su Valley and Kenai Peninsula have abnormally dry conditions. This makes it especially critical for people to obtain and follow the guidelines outlined on burn permits for larger than a warming fire and double checking doused campfires to ensure they’re completely extinguished.

Otherwise, people’s carelessness could be especially concerning since fire suppression resources are limited this early in the year. Some of the 60 BLM AFS smokejumpers are available to respond in an initial attack capacity, however, both the Alaska Division of Forestry and BLM AFS do not have all of their aircraft in place. That is steadily changing as both agencies change from training mode to a more fire response and suppression mode as the temperatures get warmer.

For more information, contact BLM Alaska Fire Service Public Affairs Specialist Beth Ipsen at (907)356-5511 or eipsen@blm.gov.

About BLM Alaska Fire Service

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) located at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, provides wildland fire suppression services for over 244 million acres of Department of the Interior and Native Corporation Lands in Alaska. In addition, AFS has other statewide responsibilities that include: interpretation of fire management policy; oversight of the BLM Alaska Aviation program; fuels management projects; and operating and maintaining advanced communication and computer systems such as the Alaska Lightning Detection System. AFS also maintains a National Incident Support Cache with a $10 million inventory. The Alaska Fire Service provides wildland fire suppression services for America’s “Last Frontier” on an interagency basis with the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Military in Alaska.

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