I believe it is important to correct some of the misconceptions voiced in the letter to the editor published in Wednesday’s Clarion, and circulating in other discussion within our communities, regarding the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s (KNWR) response to the Funny River Fire.
KNWR’s initial direction to the Alaska Interagency Management Team’s (AIMT) leadership was to put this fire out as quickly as possible and to keep it on the refuge, according to the Incident Commander Rob Allen. He clarified that the refuge did authorize the use of retardant from the very beginning, and that retardant was used within the refuge. Wildland firefighters have found that with this fuel type, water is more effective than retardant is. Retardant just doesn’t penetrate far enough with piled fuel from large dead and down material, such as fallen timber from Spruce Bark Beetle impacted trees. Water penetrates deeper, although retardant was used in areas for which it was the best tool to fight the fire.
From the very beginning of the fire, the Refuge allowed firefighters to use dozers within the refuge to construct lines. This was very pro-active and unusual, as motorized equipment is typically not permitted within national wildlife refuges.
What helped keep the fire from jumping Funny River Road was the “Shaded Fuel Break” that the Refuge has been putting in since the late 90’s. The pre-developed fuel break was critical to the initial strategy employed in fighting the fire and prevented the houses off Funny River Road from burning. The fuel break from Funny River Road to Brown’s Lake also saved homes. That break was developed through a working collaboration between the Alaskan Division of Forestry and the Fish and Wildlife Service, on CIRI owned land. Rob Allen believes that homes would have been lost without those pre-existing fuel breaks, but because they were already there, firefighters were able to actively manage the fire rather than having to construct fuel breaks themselves. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kenai Refuge have been full and active partners in the management of this fire since day one.
The primary goal of the Refuge in a wildfire situation is to protect the public and to protect the safety of firefighters. Their commitment to the stewardship of wildlife requires that they insure that negative impacts of response are minimized. The Refuge did an extraordinary job of balancing these values and their existing responsibilities and legal authority. Andy Loranger, Refuge Manager, says it perfectly when he states, “People aren’t worried about fish if their house is about to burn down, and we recognize that.”
Situations like this require the efforts of everybody working together, seamlessly, and this fire response is a great example of that. The extraordinary efforts by firefighting crews and cooperation between agencies under the incident management team’s exceptionally qualified leadership, resulted in an very positive outcome for our communities.
Mr. Loranger, describing his experience working with the fire-fighting teams this week commented, “If there was anything that gave me comfort this week, it was knowing just how good they were.”
I offer sincere gratitude to all the hard-working firefighters and the Incident Management Team, who prevented loss of life and property, engineered an orderly evacuation when that became necessary, and kept the community well informed of the fire’s progress through reverse-911 calls and public meetings. I also offer sincere appreciation to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for their open encouragement for fire-fighting teams to use whatever means necessary to keep the public safe from this fire. Their ongoing fire protection efforts are in line with their mandates and part of why we did not lose homes in this massive wildfire.
My thanks to Governor Parnell, Incident Commander Rob Allen and his command team, and all of the agencies and individuals who responded to the Funny River and Tyonek fires. Additionally, the exceptional cooperation and assistance from our communities and residents did not go unnoticed and was impressive under very difficult and stressful situations. Thank you.