Fires in Alaska

Kathy here.  The smoke from the two major fires in our area in the interior of Alaska, the Wood River and Minto Flat fires, rolled in last night so thick the wilderness was like a packed bar loaded with smokers. Visibility down to less than 100 feet, this in a land of broad vistas and big sky. Continual dry days (.44 inches of rain in July, driest on record) and high temperatures, in the 80’s and sometimes 90’s, and no end in sight, have fanned the flames of these fires, one within 20 miles of Fairbanks, to immense killers. The Minto fire, as of a few days ago, was already 350,000 acres, or 600 square miles, across the Nenana River from the small Athabascan village of Nenana where I spent 26 years. The effects on wildlife are  incomprehensible: birds too young to fly away, moose calves too small to run through the thick brush. Fox,lynx, wolves, bears, squirrels, all with young. The beavers can at least dive down into the lakes, but their lodges, their protection, could catch fire. And no rain in sight.

But the wild blueberries and raspberries are ripe and ready early, an important part of our food supply, Mother Nature’s yearly  free giveaway. Yesterday afternoon friend Pam and I went into the hills north of here and found large patches, but the odd thing was that the ground was so dry it broke off the branches of the berry bushes and lichen as we searched with our little buckets. Instead of a moist sponge, the tundra crackled with every movement. Uncovered ground was hard and split open like the photos of African droughts I’d seen in National Geographics.

Horrified I apologized to the little plants that should have sprung back, never having seen this in 35 years in this country. Many of the berries were small, after sitting in the hot, relentless sun and 24 hours of daylight since they formed. But our buckets were full when we left. Kept our eye out for a large black bear seen in the area, my .44 strapped to my hip, but he was thankfully feasting elsewhere.

Without rain the few hay farmers in our area are suffering, along with the horse owners. Each horse up here needs about 3 tons of hay per horse for the year. The oil based fertilizer they use cannot disintergrate and nourish the grass plants without water, which has never been a problem in the past. So no one uses irrigation. At the first cutting in July, bales per acres was about 20 % of the normal amount. I was shocked when I took my flatbed trailer into my favorite farmer’s fields and left with 15 bales instead of 65. The grass was just too short.

The changes we are seeing here are extreme, as last summer with constant, record rain and finally flooding. My life depends on the weather: hay for horses, salmon for the sled dogs, adequate snow for sled dog tours in the winter, and for the last12 or so  years we have seen changes beyond what is considered normal for this far north. Excessive snow this past March closed many of the trails to even snowmachines.In the backcountry snow would be up to the top of my legs in many places, and I am 5’10” with my boots on. On one trip I had to turn a 10 dog team around in a narrow trail, and found the leaders on top of me as I stepped off the trail and fell into the deep snow, my legs cemented into place. Chaos !

All of this tells me to be flexible, do not assume and predict. Just when I am at that age when I would like to settle back a bit, cozy in my knowledge of a land and it’s rhythms. But the dance has changed, and I better learn some new steps.

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2 thoughts on “Fires in Alaska”

  1. I first heard about the fires in Alaska around the 8th of this month. I am sadden that the news shows in Denver, Colorado haven’t said anything that I have seen. And I do watch the evening news each night. And I also check the new on-line from time to time.
    We do hear about the fires in Califonia though. I wonder why Alaska isn’t up front news also.
    I wish you all the best, and hope relief comes and the fires get put out soon. I will be thinking of you all.
    Shirley T.
    Denver, Co.
    8/19/2009

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