Getting fired up

April is shaping up to be an abnormally hot month for the Kenai Peninsula, and area agencies are already gearing up for the looming fire season.

Alaska’s fire season officially kicked off in February near Delta Junction when a live-fire training exercise ignited tundra on military land.

That fire was followed by a blaze in the Mat-Su Valley caused when flames from an unattended burn barrel escaped onto grass, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

“Historically the months for the largest fire occurrences are May and June,” said Area Forester Hans Rinke from the Kenai-Kodiak office of the Alaska Division of Forestry.

According to an Alaska Monthly Fire Potential Outlook published on Feb. 29 by the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center under the Alaska Fire Service, both April and May are expected to see increased fire activity in South Central Alaska.

The Anchorage Bowl and Kenai Peninsula in particular are predicted to be at risk for increased fire activity, according to the outlook, because of warmer-than-average temperatures that have resulted in low snowpack.

“Much like last spring, this may lead to early exposure of burnable fuels and increasing fire activity two to three weeks earlier than normal,” the outlook states. “This could create increased fire potential particularly in the fine fuels along the populated corridors of southern Alaska as early as mid March.”

While April is set to be hotter than usual, Rinke said conditions during the later portion of the fire season could potentially be more mild.

“It really depends on what weather pattern we get,” he said, explaining that enough rain over the next few months could result in a moderate later fire season.

The Division of Forestry and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management are already preparing for the season by putting their employees through training. Rinke said a basic firefighter refresher course has already started in the Division of Forestry.

“For the next month to six weeks (staff will) be traveling to specialized training,” he said.

Scott Walden, director of the Office of Emergency Management, said his office has already begun coordinating with area fire chiefs and other relevant departments.

Area fire departments are encouraged to enter their firefighting equipment into a resource ordering system to make it easier for it to be called upon if needed during a wildfire, he said.

The office has also been getting in touch with foresters and local law enforcement to touch base on the upcoming season and how to get information out to the public during a fire.

“We want to try to stay ahead of the curve by making sure that lines of communication are open with all the responders,” Walden said.

In a public service announcement released March 4, the local office of the Division of Forestry gave several recommendations for those conducting open burns before the permits are required.

Recommendations included watching and tending to a fire until it is out, avoiding a burn if winds are 10 miles per hour or stronger, and creating a “fuel break” around the fire “large enough to contain it.”

“The fuel break should be cleared to mineral soil,” Division of Forestry staff wrote in the announcement. “This is especially important due to lack of snow cover.”

Burn permits will be required by the Division of Forestry starting April 1. Simply following the parameters of the permits will ensure that users do their part to protect the peninsula from unwanted fires, Rinke said.

He added that cleaning out gutters and moving wood piles and brush away from homes will better protect buildings in the event of a close fire.

“It’s a good idea to have 20 to 40 feet around your home cleared,” Walden said, adding that his office encourages “Fire Wise” education within the community as a means of fire prevention.

From the perspective of those at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a wildfire on refuge lands would not necessarily be a bad thing unless it occurred where refuge land interfaces with human settlement, said Kristi Bulock, a fire management officer at the refuge.

“Any fires on refuge lands, if it is safe to do so, we would like to allow fire where we can because that helps to build a resilient landscape,” she said. “And what I mean by that is wildfire is not only a healant itself, it’s also a natural process.”

Wildfires are expected in boreal forests in that they help restore the landscape after a certain number of years, Bulock said.

However, when the fires are in danger of affecting residents who live near the refuge, Bulock said steps are taken to try to keep people out of harm’s way.

The refuge boasts about 175 miles of urban interface land, she said.

“We plan and implement vegetation treatments and hazardous fuel reductions,” Bulock said, adding that refuge staff are currently using equipment to manipulate vegetation along Funny River Road in an area that was not affected by the 2014 Funny River fire and is therefore vulnerable.

Later this month, members of the Alaska Fire Service will come to do vegetation treatment by hand, possibly in the Sterling area, she said.

Should residents see signs of burning during that time, Bulock stressed that they will be the result of controlled burns and not a cause for alarm.

Alaska’s financial situation will play a part in this year’s fire season as well.

“It’s in all of our minds,” Walden said of the state’s budget. “There’s a regular number of runs that occur in a community … and when fires occur it’s over and above what you can budget for.”

The Office of Emergency Management is very close to being 100 percent reimbursed for the expenses stemming from last year’s Card Street fire, Walden said.

Rinke said the Division of Forestry lost a few positions last year, but otherwise will continue business as usual in the upcoming season.

“As far as in the field … we’re fighting fire as we have in the past,” he said.

Walden said that when it comes to the upcoming season, resident cooperation with the information and decisions made by responders will be key.

When the Funny River and Card Street fires necessitated evacuations, Walden said residents were good about paying attention to the evacuation orders and getting out in a timely manner.

“If we have major incident that we have to evacuate areas for … we really hope that people listen to our messaging,” he said.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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