Division of Forestry firefighters in Soldotna headed to their 18th wildland fire of the season Thursday as Kenai Peninsula departments prepared for the Memorial Day weekend and the inevitable influx of visitors.
Firefighters are urging caution on the Kenai Peninsula as warm and semi-dry conditions have caused fire danger levels to remain high in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer.
“Memorial Day weekend is a tough weekend,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Program Coordinator, Dan Nelson.
The abundance of green trees and grass is a sign of summer but, Nelson said, not everything has “greened up.”
“There is still a lot of dry grass everywhere,” he said.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Central Emergency Services is not the first-responder department for wildland fires, rather they support Division of Forestry if needed.
But, Nelson said, the borough’s Office of Emergency Management, is poised to help with human-caused fires that invariably pop up this time of year.
Nelson said no one wanted a repeat of the 2014 behemoth Funny River wild fire, which started on May 19 on a windy day and quickly spiraled out of control.
That fire burned nearly 200,000 acres of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land and threatened Funny River, Soldotna, Sterling and Kasilof several times.
“Hopefully people will be individually responsible and that way we don’t have a repeat of the time, the money and the danger to individuals in the community,” Nelson said.
Forestry Fire Management Officer Howie Kent sat in his office Thursday monitoring the latest developing fire in Homer. He said the 18 fires forestry firefighters have responded to since the start of the fire season in April have been all over the Kenai Peninsula from Nikiski to Homer.
“Every one of them is human-caused,” he said. “They’re mostly unattended or escaped fires, whether it’s a campfire or debris burn.”
The largest fire that forestry has responded to on the Kenai Peninsula in 2015 was a 5.1 acre burn along Jim Howard Road in Anchor Point that started on May 4. That one loomed large enough to need an air drop of a load of fire retardant, Kent said.
“It was left unattended for about 15 minutes and that’s all it took for the wind to come up and carry it way,” he said.
In Nikiski, firefighters have responded to six smoke investigation calls and one working wildland fire, said Public Information Officer Bud Sexton.
“We’ve been focusing real heavy on education about burn permits — we have them available at both of our stations,” Sexton said.
So far, community members have been conscientious about burning, he said.
“A lot of people I’ve talked with have said, ‘if it’s windy at all, I’m not even burning.’ That’s just what we need. We need people to follow all the rules and regulations and pick the best day to get rid of their debris,” Sexton said.
All three fire officials said visitors and Kenai Peninsula residents should be conscientious about how they use flammables over the weekend.
“Memorial Day weekend is really the beginning of the turnout of more people here on the Kenai Peninsula. We’ll get thousands of extra visitors and people here,” Kent said. “With more people comes more potential for ignition. People come here and they don’t take care of their campfires, they leave them abandoned and we get escaped campfires from time to time.”
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