The 2009 Shanta Creek Fire, located in Congressionally-designated Wilderness on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, was managed as a natural ecosystem process. (Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge)

The 2009 Shanta Creek Fire, located in Congressionally-designated Wilderness on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, was managed as a natural ecosystem process. (Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge)

Refuge Notebook: Options for managing wildfires in Alaska

Over 100 years ago, our nation adopted its first policies about dealing with wildfires. A gigantic forest fire in Idaho, which burned 3 million acres, was the main reason the topic was brought up. People as far away as Watertown, New York, were affected with smoke and ash fallout. The sun was obscured by smoke, and some people were having difficulty breathing. The charred landscape looked devastating, every bit of green now black and dead. The public outcry was the catalyst for creating a new strategy of aggressively fighting every wildfire. Forest fires were now considered to be the enemy, and had to be stopped.

These early policies stated that every fire must be controlled by 10 a.m. the next day after being found. The newly-funded U.S. Forest Service took the lead as the main agency tasked with the job. Soon after, the first Smokejumper and Hotshot crews were created. These were elite firefighters who were organized similarly to the military.

Back in the early days, there were also some not so elite firefighters. When large fires burned, it was not uncommon for a forest ranger to visit the local bar and recruit on-the-spot anyone who could meet at least three criteria to join the fight — they needed a pulse, they needed to be sober enough to stand on their own, and they wanted to join the fight.

In the West in particular, almost everyone had a role to play when fires burned. We also evolved as a nation and invested in new technologies. We learned from experience the right and wrong things to do to control fires. It didn’t take very long before the U.S. had arguably the best wildfire fighting force in the world. As Americans, that’s just how we like to do things!

The only problem was we got a little too good at it. Although it was well intended, putting out natural wildfires had unforeseen consequences. We inadvertently created forests that, due to the suppression of naturally-ignited fires, became un-naturally overgrown, dense, and ultra-flammable. Periodic, low-intensity fires had been replaced by gigantic “megafires.” Old timers used to say that back in the 1960s a 10,000-acre wildfire was considered huge in the Lower 48. Nowadays, that’s chump change.

It’s not that we regressed as a firefighting force, but because the conditions we face today are vastly more complicated. Forests are more flammable, urban areas are encroaching further into fire prone areas, invasive plants have changed fire regimes, and climate change is likely responsible for longer fire seasons and creating the extreme weather conditions needed for these giant fires to occur. It is a mixture of factors that have created our current situation and there are no easy answers of how to properly address them.

In Alaska, we face the same challenges seen everywhere else— how can we balance maintaining healthy ecosystems and still be able to safely live within them?

Alaska has a statewide fire management plan that defines options for the initial response to new wildfires. These management options range from areas where fires are aggressively suppressed, mostly in populated areas, to places where they may be left to burn on their own. Many fires in the Alaska Interior are managed by protecting values at risk, such as Native allotments and structures, while not trying to stop the fire itself. This tactic has left most of Alaska in far better shape ecologically than much of the Lower 48.

Here on the Kenai, there are several vegetation treatment projects both planned and implemented collaboratively among agencies designed to help to protect communities from wildfire. These are mostly strategically-placed forest thinning projects which create a buffer zone from a raging wildfire.

The Funny River Fire from 2014 is a prime example of how these projects help firefighters control fires in areas where they are dangerous. A previously-thinned area along Funny River Road was used as a control line when that fire was bearing down on Soldotna. It was a real life study which proved the worthiness of creating these areas. The effectiveness of these treatments is greatly enhanced when homeowners also “Firewise,” or reduce flammable vegetation around their homes and property.

Wildfires are inevitable, and the longer a forest goes without having natural fires, the worse it can be when a fire does happen. It’s sort of like being in debt and only paying the minimum payment. It may feel good to kick the can down the road, but it eventually catches up and ends up costing you more in the long run.

Nathan Perrine is the Fire Operations/Fuels Technician at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more information at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/kenai/ or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

More in Life

File
Minister’s Message: The power of small beginnings

Tiny accomplishments lead to mighty successes in all areas of life

A copy of “Once Upon the Kenai: Stories from the People” rests against a desk inside the Peninsula Clarion’s offices on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Off the Shelf: Hidden history

‘Once Upon the Kenai’ tells the story behind the peninsula’s landmarks and people

Artwork by Graham Dale hangs at the Kenai Art Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. These pieces are part of the “Sites Unseen” exhibition. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Apart and together

‘Sites Unseen’ combines the work of husband and wife pair Graham Dane and Linda Infante Lyons

Homemade garlic naan is served with a meal of palak tofu, butter chicken, basmati rice and cucumber salad. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
On the strawberry patch: Naan for a crowd

When it comes to feeding a group, planning is key

P.F. “Frenchy” Vian poses with a cigar and some reading material, probably circa 1920, in an unspecified location. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)
Unraveling the story of Frenchy, Part 6

The many vital chapters in the story of Frenchy fell into place

File
Jesus, God of miracles, provides

When you are fishing or eating them, remember how Jesus of Nazareth used fish in some of his miracles

Sugar cookies are decorated with flowers of royal icing. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Blooming sugar cookies

These sugar cookies are perfectly soft and delicious, easy to make, and the dough can be made long in advance

File
Minister’s Message: What God wants you to know

Do you ever have those moments when you turn toward heaven and ask God, “What do You want with me?”

Eventually, all but one of Frenchy’s siblings would live for a time in the United States. Carlo Viani, pictured here in the early 1900s, also spent some time in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)
Unraveling the story of Frenchy, Part 5

By many accounts, P.F. “Frenchy” Vian appears to have been at least an adequate game warden for Kenai

Will Morrow (courtesy)
Room for growth

Plants that require lots of watering, fertilizer, mulching for the winter, other constant care? The moose can have them

"Protection: Adaptation and Resistance" includes these robes, "Kaxhatjaa X'óow: Herring Protectors," made by Káakaxaawulga/Jennifer Younger, K'asheechtlaa/Louise Brady and Carol Hughey. The show is on exhibit at the Pratt Museum & Park in Homer, Alaska, through Sept. 24, 2022. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Art of resistance

Pratt show features Native art of the pandemic and beyond