The aftermath of this year's Card Street fire where it burned along the Kenai River. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge photo

The aftermath of this year's Card Street fire where it burned along the Kenai River. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge photo

Refuge Notebook: After the fire

There’s a saying in Alaska that when the fireweed stops blooming that the wildfire season is over. This seems to be valid for most but not every year. You see, this saying follows the time of year when nature’s ignitor of wildfires, lightning, becomes less frequent and often disappears entirely as a cooler southwest flow of moisture sets up over the state. We are all too familiar with these typical late July and early August rains. If it were not for the occurrence of human-caused wildfires, this saying would hold true.

Did you know that in areas where wildlands and urban interface, such as we have on the Kenai Peninsula, the number of human-caused wildfires substantially outnumbers those ignited by nature? Anyone who has been here for the past few years has witnessed the fury of extreme fire behavior associated with human-caused fires such as the 2007 Caribou Hills fire, the 2014 Funny River fire, and this year’s Card Street fire. We live amongst vegetation that by its genetic make-up promotes the spread of wildfires — it is extremely flammable, even when green.

Now comes the second saying, “It’s not a matter of if wildfires will happen in Alaska, but when.” We choose to live in this vast and wild place, largely because it is just that — wild. Wild means that natural processes, such as lightning-caused wildfires, help keep the fire-adapted boreal forest in balance by recycling nutrients and creating a mosaic of vegetation types. This mix of grass, herbs, shrub and trees provide healthy habitats for birds, hare, lynx, moose and other creatures of the boreal forest. Wildlife benefit from a variety of vegetation types rather than just a monoculture of dense spruce.  

Wildfires often remove the canopy in patches, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of species that lay dormant, and were out-competed by the climax tree species. Vegetation co-existing in different seral classes is all part of the successional changes that forests, left to the forces of nature, will eventually go through.

Another benefit of lightning-caused wildfires is the reduction of flammable vegetation (or fuels in fire lingo). Burned-over areas act as barriers to future wildfire spread thus lessening the chance of large scale catastrophic wildfires. An example of this was observed when the regenerating forest from the lightning-caused 2005 King County Creek fire checked spread of the Funny River fire as it moved east toward Skilak Lake. Similarly, a large portion of the 2009 Shanta Creek fire did not burn as the Funny River fire encroached upon that area.  

What do we see after the fires come through? Well, initially we see fireweed, beautiful and edible. We also see the regeneration of deciduous aspen, birch and willow that moose love to browse in winter. Blueberry shrubs are more productive few years post fire. But there are dangers afoot in a recently burned area, as we may also see deep ash pits and shallow rooted trees weakened by the loss of the vegetative mat that could topple over with the slightest bit of wind. So please be careful when you are pursuing that perfect patch of morels!

Here we are, once again, near the end of another Alaska wildfire season, and coming into a time of year when we can reflect on the bountiful harvests of summer and fall, much of which would not be possible without balanced ecosystems.  

This is also a time to think about how we can help to mitigate the risk of future fire impacts to our property and homes by creating defensible space. Defensible space not only provides a safe place for firefighters to take a stand against wildfire threats, but also allows naturally-ignited wildfires that are not threatening homes or other values to safely be managed as they stimulate vegetation succession. The result: healthy lands that ours and future generations can enjoy, wild areas kept wild, after the fire.

Kristi Bulock is the Fire Management Officer at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more information about the Refuge at or

Fireweed and shrubs regenerate among weakened trees one year after a fire. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge photo

Fireweed and shrubs regenerate among weakened trees one year after a fire. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge photo

More in Life

Nick Varney
Unhinged Alaska: Would I do it again?

I ran across some 20-some year-old journal notes rambling on about a 268-foot dive I took

A copy of Prince Harry’s “Spare” sits on a desk in the Peninsula Clarion office on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Off the Shelf: Prince Harry gets candid about ‘gilded cage’ in new memoir

“Spare” undoubtedly succeeds in humanizing Harry

The cast of “Tarzan” rides the Triumvirate Theatre float during the Independence Day parade in downtown Kenai, Alaska on Monday, July 4, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Triumvirate swings into the year with ‘Tarzan’, Dr. Seuss and fishy parody

The next local showing of the Triumvirate Theatre is fast approaching with a Feb. 10 premiere of “Seussical”

This vegan kimchi mandu uses crumbled extra-firm tofu as the protein. (Photo by Tressa Dale / Peninsula Clarion)
Meditating on the new year with kimchi mandu

Artfully folding dumplings evokes the peace and thoughtful calm of the Year of the Rabbit

A promotional poster for the first event in the Winter Film Series. (Photo courtesy Kenai Peninsula Film Group)
Movie buffs to debut local film series

This first entry is centered on short films

Mashed potatoes are served with chicken breast, green beans and pan sauce. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Mashed potatoes for a chef

They are deceptively hard to get right

Photo 210.029.162, from the Clark Collection, courtesy of Hope and Sunrise Historical and Mining Museum 
Emma Clark feeds the Clark “pet” moose named Spook in 1981. At the urging of state wildlife officials, Carl Clark had agreed to care for this calf at their home in Hope.
Emma Clark: Becoming a Hope pioneer

For 50 years, Emma and Carl had been central to the story of Hope

A copy of “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” stands on a desk in the Peninsula Clarion office on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Off the Shelf: Coffee shop time travelers leave reader cold

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is the debut novel of author and playwright Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Josiah Burton and Jaylee Webster rehearse "Something Rotten" on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
School productions bring SpongeBob SquarePants, Sherlock Holmes to the stage

Nikiski and Soldotna drama programs prepare for April productions

Ultra-fast, protein-packed miso soup is a mild and comforting broth for sick days. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Soothing soup for January ills

It’s probably a novelty to have experienced my child’s infancy without a single sniffle