Lightning strikes spark new wave of Interior Alaska wildfires

a map of fires
A map of new, lightning-caused fires the Alaska Division of Forestry & Fire Protection actively responded to on Monday, July 24 near Delta and Salcha. (From Alaska Wildland Fire Information)

Thousands of lightning strikes around Alaska’s eastern Interior sparked new wildfires Monday.

Two of the fires ignited by lightning are burning in areas off the Pogo gold mine access road north of Delta Junction. State Division of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson Lily Coyle said the biggest is the 150-acre Pogo Mine Road Fire that was started by several strikes.

“That was actually a cluster of ignitions, so there’s multiple different starts,” Coyle said. “And they’re very close to each other, so we’re just considering it one fire.”

Coyle said the other area fire start, the 6-Mile Pogo Road Fire, had burned about 6 acres as of Monday night.

“There are no structures threatened on the Pogo Mine Road Fire or the 6-Mile Pogo Fire,” she said. “We did have air resources responding and are continuing to monitor.”

Further north, the McCoy Creek Fire near Salcha had burned about 50 acres as of Monday night. 

Beth Ipsen, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service, was also busy with new lightning starts.

“We got a lot of reports coming in through the dispatch centers, so we sent some AFS personnel up in a plane to check them out,” Ipsen said. “And as we were sending people out, they were finding new fires.”

Ipsen said the agency recorded 7,000 lightning strikes around the Interior. But as of Monday night the only high-priority fire in the federal agency’s area of responsibility was the 5-acre Moose Fire, burning near Mile 100 of the Elliott Highway.

“It’s not immediately threatening anything, but we’d like to keep it from impacting the highway,” she said.

Ipsen said rainfall and the damp subsurface soil around the region should slow the fire’s growth.

“Those deeper ground layers haven’t dried out like they would in a typical year, so most of what we’re going to see right now is more surface-burning,” she said. “So they will be a little bit more manageable if we get on them right away.”

Meanwhile, National Weather Service meteorologist Bobby Bianco said rain showers are helping clear the air of smoke that’s been drifting into the Interior from large wildfires in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

“Definitely rain can help alleviate some of the smoke,” he said.

Bianco said that’s what happened Monday afternoon in Fairbanks.

“It did reduce some of the smoke here just a little bit,” he said. “The wind kind of pushed it south of the area, and we see a little bit bluer skies.”

The new fires come as Interior and Southcentral Alaska skies see smoke from wildfires burning in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Forecasts call for the smoke to dissipate later this week.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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