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Alaska Fire Season Closes in on Record

August 18, 2004|From Associated Press

ANCHORAGE — The 2004 fire season will be one for the record books in Alaska, where more than 7,800 square miles have burned so far -- an area larger than Connecticut.

On Tuesday, the state's wildfires were within 50,000 acres of topping the 1957 Alaska record of 5.05 million acres. Last year, wildfires scorched slightly more than 4.9 million acres in the entire United States.

The blazes are so hot they're melting the ground.

Fire information officer Dave Schmitt said fire had thawed permafrost on a bluff overlooking Mile 137 on Steese Highway, causing mud to flow over about 100 feet of the road. The mudslide was caused by the Bolgen Creek fire, one of six major blazes totaling 320,000 acres.

Fire officials sent heavy equipment to scrape the mud off the road, then dropped new gravel on it.

Permafrost is soil that stays frozen year-round. In tundra, it's often found after digging through a top layer of soil thawed by summer sun. Just 15% of Alaska is permafrost-free, according to permafrost expert Vladimir Romanovski, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute.

Aaron Tyburski, a National Weather Service forecaster in Fairbanks, said warm, dry conditions were expected at least through the weekend. High pressure remains over the center of the state.

Visibility in Fairbanks was reduced to half a mile because of heavy smoke, and similar conditions existed around the state, he said.

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