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Wildfires burn large, remote tract in Alaska

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SEATTLE — Alaska officials were letting three dozen wildfires burn in bone dry, sunsplashed central Alaska Wednesday, where fires had already scorched more than 400,000 acres in the rugged, sparsely populated region.

Covered with mostly scrub black spruce and dotted with an occasional cabin, the vast Alaska bush country south of the Yukon River loses about 500,000 acres a year to fire, which clears the land of dead brush and regenerates tree growth.

"We have a total of 36 active fires. We are deployed on six," said Andy Williams, a spokesman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

"We let fires play their natural role in remote areas where they aren't damaging any valuable resources. We go after them when they burn toward specific things like cabins," he added.

Fires have burned a total of 460,000 acres so far this year, including 430,000 in the last two weeks, most touched off by lightning and fed by arid conditions under sunshine that blankets the area for 18 hours or more a day in early summer.

Three of the uncontrolled fires had claimed at least 80,000 acres each and could continue to churn through the desiccated region, barring significant rains, Williams said.

"It depends on Mother Nature. If it starts raining in the next day or so, things could come to a screeching halt. We've had some rain, but it's very dry out there."

The fires destroy the scraggly black spruce, but trigger its cones to release their seeds, prompting renewal of the hardy trees, Williams said.