Division of Forestry: Melting snow brings fire risk, burn permits required starting Thursday

 Saw line near Caribou Creek Fire
Saw line near Caribou Creek Fire (KTUU)
Published: Mar. 31, 2021 at 4:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With snow still on the ground, the end of winter might seem a ways off, but the Alaska Division of Forestry is looking ahead to this year’s wildland fire season and reminding residents that burn permits are required starting Thursday.

On April 1, permits are required for anyone burning materials including brush piles, burn barrels, maintained lawns and agricultural burning, according to a Wednesday press release from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Burn permits are free, and can be picked up in person from regional Division of Forestry offices in in Delta Junction, Fairbanks, Glennallen, Haines, Ketchikan, Palmer, Soldotna and Tok. They can also be obtained from local fire departments, or printed off online.

Division of Forestry Information Officer Tim Mowry said he knows Alaskans are eager to see winter come to and end and the snow to melt, but he urged caution as spring approaches. The time after snow melts but before grass and trees “green up” is a time when the state is particularly vulnerable to fires, he explained.

“Once that snow does melt off and those dead fuels are exposed and dried out, and until we get to green up, that is a really dangerous time,” Mowry said. “Because those dead surface fuels can carry fire really quickly if there’s any wind.”

The grass and other fuels now being exposed as snow melts have essentially been freeze-dried over winter, Mowry said. As soon as the ground dries, those fuels will be dry and will carry any fires quickly across the ground, and potentially toward structures. Mowry said he’s seen several instances over the years of a fire escaping a burn barrel and burning someone’s home.

“Once green up hits, that takes the edge off of those fuels, when the grass greens up and you get some leaves on trees,” he said.

Most fires the Division of Forestry responds to during April and spring are human-caused, according to the press release. The state typically does not see lightning-caused fires until later in the summer.

This year’s fire season looks like it will start out slow, according to the press release, but Mowry pointed out that conditions can change quickly in Alaska. Over the last 20 years, the state’s fire seasons have been starting earlier and lasting longer, according to the Division of Forestry. Four of the 10 largest fire seasons on record since 1939 have happened in the years since 2004.

Last year’s fire season was unique in that the Division of Forestry had to contend with the coronavirus pandemic still in its infancy, and strict COVID-19 travel protocols. The big concern in 2020 was that travel restrictions could hamper wildland fire response in Alaska, a state that relies heavily on help from Lower 48 firefighters.

This year, Mowry said that’s a little less of a concern. The state got a season during the pandemic under its belt, and the division was able to get used to the extra safety protocols when sending Alaska firefighters down to help in the Lower 48.

“We went through that process last year,” Mowry said. “That really helped us out [...] to figure out a plan for bringing folks in.”

Both small- and large-scale burn permits are available. They are not required for things like camping, cooking or warming fires that are less than 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet high. Some local governments, like the Municipality of Anchorage, have their own regulations regarding burning. Residents should check with their local fire departments before burning as well.

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