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NOAA satellite image of Alaska wildfires taken on June 30, 2004, at 10:30 p.m. EDT.July 2, 2004 — A pall of smoke the size of Texas continues to blanket most of Alaska, as several dozen wildfires continue to burn out of control. More than a million acres have burned in the state. There are currently 61 active fires in the state, mostly in the eastern interior, and in an area starting roughly 20 miles north and east of the city of Fairbanks. Of the 61 fires, 51 are uncontained, according to the NOAA National Weather Service. (Click NOAA satellite image for larger view of Alaska wildfires taken on June 30, 2004, at 10:30 p.m. EDT. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)

Winds that are currently pushing the fire and smoke towards Fairbanks are expected to shift from their current northeast direction to the southwest by Saturday morning. With this shift in winds, air quality problems currently being experienced in Fairbanks should be alleviated. For the fires, however, weather conditions are not expected to significantly improve anytime in the next several days.

Meanwhile, a team of 200 U.S. Forest Service firefighters began arriving at the NOAA Fairbanks Command and Data Acquisition Station to establish a logistical base of operations. On Thursday, large wildfires were seen near the station, prompting concerns that the facility might be evacuated. The station is part of the NOAA Satellites and Information Service.

Forest Service officials later said the flames posed no immediate threat to the station, and the staff continued normal satellite operations.

For NOAA National Weather Service forecasters in Fairbanks, the fires have been especially challenging, since for a time there were concerns the Fairbanks Weather Forecast Office would be evacuated.

NOAA satellite image of fires and smoke detected across Alaska and across the continental USA taken on July 2, 2004, at 5:41 a.m. EDT.During the past few days, evacuations of residents and tourists have occurred along the Taylor Highway (approximately 200 people) and along the Steese Highway (about 27 residences). Since the morning of June 28, visibility in the Fairbanks area has been reduced to one-quarter to one-half mile most of the time, accompanied by falling ash from the active fires. (Click NOAA satellite image for larger view of fires and smoke detected across Alaska and across the continental USA taken on July 2, 2004, at 5:41 a.m. EDT. Click here for latest view. Please credit “NOAA.”)

The FAA's Pedro Dome Doppler radar is also in jeopardy from the approaching fire. The fire was 23 miles (20 nautical miles) north of the facility, with winds forecasted to continue to drive the fire in that general direction. Fire teams successfully built a fire break upstream of Pedro Dome, where the Fairbanks area WSR-88D NEXRAD radar is located. Active firefighting is proceeding on the southern flanks of this fire, known now as the "Boundary" fire. It is unknown how an anticipated increase in winds Friday will impact these efforts.

The NOAA National Weather Service forecast office in Fairbanks management and staff have been in nearly constant communication with the various state and federal fire agencies over the past several days. Fire weather products and services have been routinely issued and communicated with customers and partners. An Incident Meteorologist (IMET) has arrived from the "lower 48" to augment the WFO staff in response to the increase in spot forecasts and fire weather activities for the duration of this event.


Working the fire weather detail Wednesday, NOAA meteorologist Mike Richmond noticed something unusual on the weather radar—a bright spot near Chena Hot Springs that wasn't supposed to be there.

What Richmond saw was one of those 51 uncontained fires. It is believed that what he saw on radar was actually the "Wolf Creek Fire," which was thought to be 20 miles away and of no threat to lives or property. There were no suspected fires in the area of Chena Hot Springs Resort, Alaska's premier natural mineral hot springs and a prime tourist destination located 60 miles east of Fairbanks.

Radar picks up the smoke and/or ash from the fire by reflection of the radar waves and it shows up as a color spectrum on the screen. "The reflectivity return I saw was quite alarming" said Richmond, who added that he'd never seen anything like it before. Richmond wasn't sure what it was at first, so he started doing some research. He eventually contacted the Chena Hot Springs resort where the manager reported that the fire was very close and smoke was reducing visibility to 1,000 feet.

Since there was no suspected fire in the area, there was no support to contain it. The manager at the resort started digging a fire line himself and had sprinklers going on the roof to try and save his property. Richmond began making phone calls and, with the help of Alaska Region headquarters resources and satellite imagery from the NOAA Satellites and Information Service, was able to report the location of and track the fire for Alaska Fire Services. Firefighting assets—the last available truck in Fairbanks—were sent to Chena Hot Springs.

When it was first noticed by Richmond, the fire was 7.5 miles from Chena Hot Springs. As of Thursday morning, the fire was 2 miles away. Because of his vigilance, property may be lost, but the potential for loss of life due to this fire has been greatly reduced.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nationís coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office in Fairbanks, Alaska

NOAA Alaska Fire Weather

NOAA Fire Weather Information Center

Media Contacts:
Tracey Lake, NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office in Anchorage, Alaska, (907) 271-4767 or Greg Romano, NOAA National Weather Service, (301) 713-0622