Fire protection workshop preps peninsula residents

While it might not seem like a lot can be done in the face of raging wildlife like last summer’s Card Street Fire, Kenai Peninsula homeowners themselves can do a lot to ensure their houses and possessions have a better chance of surviving.

Representatives from the Alaska Division of Forestry, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and more came prepared to share tips and advice with the Sterling community during a workshop Saturday at the Sterling Community Center that focused on the Firewise program. Though few residents turned out for the workshop, the few that did got an earful about what it truly means to create a defensible space around one’s home.

Doug Albrecht, fire prevention officer for the Division of Forestry’s Wildland Fire and Aviation Program, said in Alaska it more a matter of when, not if, a wildfire will endanger homes and communities. Firefighters try their best to protect every home from burning during a fire, but with so few of them in the state, there isn’t always a guarantee they will be there for every house, Albrecht said during his presentation.

“We educate and educate as much as we possibly can, but really we’ve got to look at the public taking the personal responsibility,” he said. “It is by far the most cost-effective way to save homes on the Kenai.”

The 2015 fire season was the second worst in the state’s history, according to Albrecht’s presentation. A total of 766 fires burned 5.1 million acres statewide.

People can take personal responsibility for the safety of their homes during large fire seasons like that one by creating defensible space, or buffers, around their homes, Albrecht said. The zone closest to a house should be free of debris, tall grass and stacked firewood.

“Alaskans like lots of stuff — they don’t throw things away,” he said. “So everything around your home that is close to your house is considered fuel.”

This can include mobile homes parked in a yard and fencing too close to a house, he said.

In the zone a little farther out from a home, Albrecht said homeowners should clear away dead fuels on the ground and minimize the chance that fire could easily climb up into the trees — a situation he called ladder fuel.

In the event of a wildfire, Albrecht said people are generally more concerned by the front line of the fire.

“Everybody’s worried about the flame front, but it’s not necessarily the flame front that’s going to get you — it’s the ember shower that’s going to get you,” he said.

Creating defensible space around a house minimizes the likelihood of those embers igniting a flame too close to the structure.

Taking steps to make sure firefighters can actually find one’s home is another preventative measure homeowners should take, Albrecht said. Clear, maneuverable driveways and clearly posted addresses help save valuable time when firefighters are trying to get around an endangered neighborhood.

Fire prevention professionals and other representatives also attended the workshop Saturday to let residents know about the upcoming Sterling Fuel Break. The 8.5-mile break is being completed through cooperation by the refuge, the Division of Forestry, Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, the Chugachmiut Corporation, Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, according to a joint release about the project.

The land is owned by the refuge, borough, CIRI and Alaska Mental Health Trust.

Sue Rodman, a program coordinator with Fish and Game who works statewide to coordinate habitat enhancement projects, said the Yukon Fire Crew was secured through grant money and matches to help put in the fuel break.

“The fuel breaks indirectly serve as habitat enhancement because they will allow us as the collaborative partnership — state forestry, the refuge, the borough, everyone who’s involved down here in land management — to potentially use, whether it’s a wildland fire or a prescribed fire, to help restore ecosystem services,” Rodman said.

Another portion from the about $2.5 million in grant money Rodman said will be used directly on the Kenai Peninsula will go toward a moose movement study beginning in the fall.

“Because our forests here haven’t burned for so many years … they’re older, and so there’s not a lot of young hardwoods providing forage for moose,” Rodman said. “Hardwoods are also great fire breaks.”

The black spruce populating parts of the Kenai Peninsula are especially flammable, as observed in both the 2014 Funny River Fire and the 2015 Card Street Fire.

Work on the refuge portion of the Sterling Fuel Break began this spring, said Mike Hill, assistant fire management officer at the refuge.

This included ground work done by hand with chainsaws to being clearing out flammable materials, he said.

Another portion of the fuel break that is not on the refuge and requires the work of heavy machinery is out to bid through the Division of Forestry.

Much of the work on the fuel break will take place in the winter, Hill said.

“There’s several advantages to winter work,” Hill said. “The ground is frozen so the likelihood of getting stuck is minimal. Invasive weeds are not as big of an issue. When you work in the summer the equipment transports those seed heads. That’s a big issue, especially for the refuge.”

Having snow on the ground also helps workers disturb the soil less, he said.

Hill said winter work on the fuel break could potentially get started around Dec. 1 and wrap up next March, though the project may take more than one winter to complete.

The fuel break will need to be maintained over the years as well, Hill said.

“The best way to put it is it needs a haircut every 10 to 15 years,” he said. “We get reproduction of the spruce and the other tree species. They come up, and this is a lifelong commitment to these fuels breaks.”

Fuel breaks are meant primarily to promote safety of the public and firefighters during a wildfire, Hill said. This space is used as a strategic place to organize an offensive stand against a fire, Hill said.

“The fuel break doesn’t mean fire’s not going to cross it,” Rodman said. “It means that we have decision space in terms of fire suppression.”

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