Firefighters from the Mat-Su Area State Forestry office hose down a small wildfire on May 3, 2020. The fire was started by an escaped contractor debris pile that had burned several days prior but flared up Sunday and caught nearby grass on fire. (Alaska Division of Forestry)

Firefighters from the Mat-Su Area State Forestry office hose down a small wildfire on May 3, 2020. The fire was started by an escaped contractor debris pile that had burned several days prior but flared up Sunday and caught nearby grass on fire. (Alaska Division of Forestry)

Crews respond to fires across state as burn ban goes into effect

Everything from illegal debris burns to hot chainsaws in dry grass were the culprits of the fires.

Firefighters from the Alaska Division of Forestry responded to 14 wildfires this weekend, most of which were caused by human activity.

The fires happened the same weekend that an indefinite suspension of burn permits for most of Alaska took effect.

There were at least another two fires in the Kenai Peninsula area on Monday, according to Forestry’s Public Information Officer Tim Mowry, and the chiefs for the Kenai Fire Department and Central Emergency Services in Soldotna.

Everything from illegal debris burns to hot chainsaws in dry grass were the culprits of this weekend’s fires. Mowry said on Monday that at this time of year it doesn’t take much for something to flare up.

“Once the snow melts and dead, dry grass is exposed, it’s very susceptible to any kind of ignition source, even a spark,” Mowry said. “And this is the time of year where people are out, they’re trying to clean up their yards, raking up dead leaves and grass, limbs that fell in their yard. And they’ll typically try and burn this stuff.”

Mowry also said that the Division of Forestry responds to a lot of fires of this nature at the beginning of every fire season.

“It does surprise me a little bit because we go this through this every year,” Mowry said. “Evidently just doesn’t sink in — how quickly a fire can spread in this dry, dead grass. It’s almost like gasoline.”

Most of the fires that occurred on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were either on the Kenai Peninsula or in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. No injuries were reported from any of the fires, but the Scaulp Fire, which was caused by a generator and occurred in the Point MacKenzie area Friday night, destroyed a residence and a shed.

On Monday, the Kenai Fire Department and Central Emergency Services each responded to the peninsula wildfires in their area. Kenai Fire Chief Tony Prior said on Monday that his firefighters put out a fire on North Spruce Avenue at about 2:40 a.m.

The fire reached a size of about 60 feet by 40 feet on the gully side of the street before being extinguished, Prior said, and was burning in dry grass.

Fire Chief Roy Browning with Central Emergency Services said that, at about noon on Monday, a dozen CES firefighters and a team from the Division of Forestry responded to a fire in the Echo Lake area that had also started in dry grass. The fire grew to about half and acre and threatened a motor home and a storage shed, Browning said, but was extinguished within about 30 minutes without any damage done.

Alaska’s fire season is just beginning, but Mowry said that wildland firefighting resources in Alaska are already stretched thin. Firefighters from Tok and Fairbanks were part of the crews responding to the fires that occurred in Southcentral Alaska this weekend. When it comes to larger fires, the state relies on flying in crews from across the Lower 48 for assistance. During last year’s busy fire season, Mowry said, more than 5,000 personnel were brought into Alaska, including firefighters, paramedics, information officers and incident commanders.

The Swan Lake Fire alone, which burned over 167,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula last year, required more than 3,000 personnel to combat it, many of whom were from out of state.

In the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Mowry said that it is unlikely the state will be able to bring crews up here in the same volume to respond to large wildland fires. Anyone traveling into Alaska from outside the state is currently required to self-isolate for 14 days, according to Health Mandate 10. That means that any firefighters brought up here would be unable to do their job for two weeks. Mowry said that he and other forestry officials still have many unanswered questions about the logistics of fighting fires while also fighting a virus.

“We are still trying to get information on the process that’s involved in bringing these people,” Mowry said. “Are they going to have to come up here and quarantine for 14 days? Are they going to be able to get tested? And if they test negative, will they be able to go out into the field? And then you mix in the fact that there’s state and federal agencies here. These different agencies have different protocols when it comes to bringing people up from the Lower 48. So that’s all still really a work in progress.”

Mowry said that the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season is part of the reason the Division of Forestry indefinitely suspended issuing any burn permits. In Alaska, permits are normally required for things like burn barrels, debris burns and large fires. Between the scarcity of additional firefighting resources and the anticipation of another relatively dry summer, all fires are prohibited on state, private and municipal lands. Mowry said small fires such as camp fires that are used for cooking, warming or signaling are still allowed, as long as they do not exceed 3 feet in diameter and the flames are not more than 2 feet high. Outdoor cooking equipment like grills and heating devices with built-in open flame safety mechanisms are also allowed.

The purpose of the burn ban, Mowry said, is to prevent as many human-caused wildfires as possible.

The Miller Loop Fire in the Nikiski area on Sunday was caused when debris from a burn escaped and spread to a nearby wooden fence. The Caribou Loop Fire on Saturday burned a tenth of an acre after someone attempted to burn oil in a burn barrel. Even an exploded can of beans, Mowry said, can start a blaze in these current conditions, referencing the Country Fire that burned half an acre on Sunday night in the Mat-Su.

Mowry sympathized with Alaskans who want to clear their yards of debris now that much of the snow has melted and the days are longer, but urged the use of methods other than burning to get it done.

“You can rake it all up and cover it with a tarp somewhere and wait for the suspension to be over to burn it when it’s safe and legal to do so,” Mowry said. “If it’s small stuff you can recycle it. Dead leaves and stuff like that, you can compost. Start a compost pile. Or you can take it to a transfer site or a landfill. That may involve a tipping fee or some kind of payment but that’s another option. If you’re in a neighborhood and there’s a bunch of people in the same boat, you can chip in and rent a wood chipper. There’s a lot of ways, and some of them take more work than making a pile and lighting it up and keeping an eye on it, but that’s just the situation we’re in.”

Mowry said that when it comes to holding people criminally liable for violating the burn ban, Forestry crews will prioritize education over enforcement, but won’t hesitate to hold people responsible in order to keep people safe.

“We don’t want to be the wildfire police. That’s not what our mission is,” Mowry said. “We want to try to educate the public and get compliance. But if we show up to the same spot two or three times, and it’s the same people we’re dealing with, they stand a good chance of being fined.”

The fines that come with violating the burn ban depend on the severity of the situation, but Mowry said that if a fire causes damage or destroys property, the person who started the fire could be liable for up to three times the cost of the damage.

“I understand why people get bent out of shape when we do this suspension,” Mowry said. “But in the bigger picture it’s not that big a deal to have to cover up a debris pile with a tarp and wait a month, two months, three months to burn it. There’s a lot more at stake than that, and I hope people would understand that.”

Last summer was an exceptionally dry season for the Kenai Peninsula, which exacerbated fire conditions and caused fires to reach into unexpected areas. This summer, Southcentral Alaska is expected to have “normal” fire conditions, according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for May, June, July and August 2020, which was released by the National Interagency Fire Center.

For the latest on wildland fires in Alaska, visit Akfireinfo.com.

Reach Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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