Arctic blast in Alaska with 198 lightning strikes downs power lines, sparking widespread wildfires; winds of up to 50 mph produce 'extreme fire behavior' at 100-Mile Creek blaze, says fire service official

ANCHORAGE, Alaska , June 2, 2014 () – An unusually large and violent cold front swept through a vast swath of Alaska this weekend, bringing with it heavy winds that downed power lines and stoked dozens of fires in the Interior and delivered rain and snow that blanketed hillsides as far south as Homer.

The Arctic blast produced "prolonged southerly winds nearly statewide" that combined with low humidity and dry forest fuel to start dozens of wildfires from the Mat-Su Valley to Tok on Saturday, wrote Sam Harrel of the Alaska Division of Forestry in an e-mail. Most of the fires were sparked by trees blowing on power lines. Of the 23 new fires reported, 15 were in the Fairbanks area.

"This was just so widespread," Harrel said in a phone interview.

With winds gusting to 40 mph or higher, firefighters struggled to quell flare-ups in Ester, Chena Hot Springs, Anderson, Cripple Creek and other locations.

Firefighters "were hindered by the sheer number of incidents (and) the wind storm itself," Harrel said.

Crews eventually contained all of the newly-started fires, he said.

Some 198 lightning strikes were also reported during the storm.

"These weren't in our forecast," Harrel said. "Fortunately they were wet strikes, they came during rain."

A wildfire on a U.S. Army training range south of Delta Junction that had been burning steadily since May 13 exploded in size Saturday, growing from 700 acres to more than 6,000.

Winds were so strong that firefighters couldn't attack it from the ground, said Mel Slater, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska Fire Service team.

Winds of up to 50 mph have been producing "extreme fire behavior" at the 100-Mile Creek blaze this weekend, Slater said.

A spot fire from a prescribed burn in the area started the 100-Mile Creek fire, which has been burning in an area of spruce, hardwood and tundra on the Army's Donnelly Training Area, about 17 miles south of Delta Junction.

The 19 firefighters assigned to the blaze worked from the air Saturday because it was too dangerous on the ground, Slater said. A "Red Flag" wind warning was still in effect for the area on Sunday.

No communities are threatened by the fire. Firefighters have been using airborne retardant tankers to keep the fire from some military equipment and structures, Slater said.

In Southcentral Alaska, the storm system brought rains, wind, snow and anxiety to plant growers.

Gusting winds also knocked out power lines and blew down trees on the fire line of the Kenai Peninsula's Funny River fire, which covered 193,243 acres and was 58 percent contained as of Sunday morning.

"Fire crews were pulled back from the line to protect them from falling green and burned trees," the Alaska Interagency Incident Management team said in an update.

Crews were able to return to the fire later in the day.

Aside from fire danger, Southcentral Alaska gardeners and farmers saw their tender spring plants exposed to cold temperatures and, in higher elevations, snow.

In the Anchorage Bowl, the low temperature hit 38 degrees at the National Weather Service's Sand Lake recording station, said Dave Stricklan, a NWS hydrometeorological technician.

In Homer, Michelle LaFriniere woke up early Saturday to see her 7,000 peony plants blanketed in white.

"The snow was whirling past the windows like it was a blizzard in January," said the proprietor of Chilly Root Peony Farm, which is located at an elevation of nearly 2,000 feet and produces some of the latest-blooming peonies in Alaska.

"I just thought, I cannot deal with this. I'm going back to bed," LaFriniere said.

The plants look droopy and bedraggled, but LaFriniere said she thinks they'll pull through.

She's just glad she hasn't yet planted her outdoor garden, full of tender greens. Those wouldn't have fared so well.

"It was such a beautiful May," she said. "We were all fooled."

Forecasters say more of that May weather may be in store: Warm, dry conditions are expected to resume early this week.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.


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