Fire managers urge caution heading into Memorial Day weekend

File photo of the Montana Creek East Fire in June 2015. (Courtesy of Baker River Hotshots)
File photo of the Montana Creek East Fire in June 2015. (Courtesy of Baker River Hotshots)

Alaskans will be headed outdoors to enjoy the Memorial Day weekend – the unofficial start of summer for many, but fire managers are reminding state residents that the risk of wildfire is extremely high and they are urging caution.

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State Fire Information Officer Tim Mowry says even though some areas have received some rainfall and cooler weather, it’s been spotty.

“It doesn’t take long for what rain we’ve had to dry out and those fuels to become dry again and are receptive to any kind of ignition source,” he said.

There have already been about 150 wildfires reported in Alaska this year – most of them human-caused.

One of those fires was a 2-acre blaze in Anchorage, which Mowry says highlights an issue of growing concern among fire managers – drones.

Mowry says drones impact aviation similarly to birds; they are small, move unpredictably, fly at lower altitudes where fire fighting aircraft operate, and he says they can potentially bring down helicopters and planes.

Mowry says federal safety protocols, which the state follows, say if a drone is spotted in the area, all firefighting air operations must cease until it’s confirmed the drone is no longer in the air space.

“So that means if we’ve got helicopters responding to a fire to drop water on a fire or we’ve got air retardant tankers coming in to drop retardant and they can’t operate because there’s a drone in the airspace, that means that fire gets bigger, that fire threatens homes, properties, lives,” he said.

Mowry says time is critical in the initial attack on a fire.

With low humidity and temperatures predicted to hit the mid-70s throughout much of Southcentral Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula over the weekend, Mowry says fire conditions could worsen.

“People still need to be vigilant and use caution with anything that can start a wildfire,” he said.

Burn bans are currently in effect in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, but could change over the weekend.

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Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-350-2058.