Forest Fire Season Begins
INTRO: This year's forest fire season is well underway across Alaska. Fire officials say it's the earliest start in more than a decade. While several hundred fire fighters battle key blazes that threaten homes and rural villages near Fairbanks, officials will allow most fires in remote, uninhabited areas to burn. As Doug Schneider explains in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, fire plays an important role in Alaska's boreal forest ecosystem.
STORY: Temperatures in the mid-80s helped to fan four large fires that together have scorched more than 200,000 acres near Fairbanks. Across Alaska, some 250—mostly small—fires have been reported. Pete Buist is a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry. He says the really big fires don't usually come until later in the summer, but that this year conditions have turned the state into a tinderbox.
BUIST: "It is in fact an early start. Between break-up and green up is the traditional time of year when we have man-caused fires, and we usually have a fair number of them. They usually don't get big because we take care of putting them out when they are small, and this is a damp time of year. But this year, the conditions we've had have been high temperatures and low humidity. And if that weren't enough, we've had strong winds."
While fire crews work to contain fires that threaten homes, villages, and personal property, biologists say there are benefits to forest fires. While the landscape may look black and barren, fire is nature's way of renewing the land. Tom Paragi is a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He studies forest fires and their effects on vegetation and wildlife. He says springtime fires behave differently than fires that occur at the peak of summer.
PARAGI: "Right now the soils are fairly saturated with water. In many places under black spruce the soil is still frozen down to five to six inches. Fires can't burn very deep. They essentially sweep over the surface and top kill the vegetation, which is a permanent kill for the spruce typically. But things like willow and aspen and birch sprouting from the root system. And the hardwoods, even two or three weeks from now you can see sprouting coming out."
While springtime fires tend to be caused by people, lightening strikes will cause most of the forest fires as the summer progresses. Those fires tend to be much hotter, burning the forest so completely in places that only mineralized soil is left. Still, Tom Paragi says such devastation serves a vital purpose.
PARAGI: "A fire during the drier part of the year can actually burn down into the organic layer and consume some of that organic duff and expose mineral soil. That allows a variety of seeds, both coniferous and deciduous, to start sprouting."
Paragi says certain trees, like black and white spruce, actually need the intense heat of a forest fire to release their seeds. Forest fires alter the landscape, of course. But that changed landscape begins a new round of forest succession that benefits many wildlife species.
PARAGI: "Depending on the type of fire and how quickly the vegetation comes back, that determines how quickly the animals come back. Many areas that you burn are going to start regenerating quickly with grasses. Within a matter of two or three weeks you can have green sprouts coming up. And so you can get a fairly quick recolonization by small mammals like snowshoe hares and sharp-tailed grouse. When you have the prey species you have the predators like foxes, marten, owls. And, of course, moose. They come to capitalize on the fresh forage that's growing there."
Still, if your home or remote cabin retreat is threatened by fire, the benefit fire brings to nature is but a small comfort. As this fire season starts off with a bang, fire officials are bracing for the worst, but hoping for the best.
If you'd like more information about Alaska's forest fires, come to our Web site at www.asjnews.org. This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.
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Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Tom Paragi, Wildlife Biologist
Pete Buist, Forester
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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