A changing climate is forcing fire managers to reevaluate their approach to battling disasters — according to a group of local, state and federal agency representatives gathered on Wednesday in Soldotna to discuss agencies’ response to the Swan Lake Fire.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna, called the meeting to discuss management strategies in the wake of the fire, which burned more than 160,000 acres and threatened the communities of Sterling and Cooper Landing.
Micciche said the purpose of the meeting was to learn more about how decisions were made in managing the fire and whether those decisions were based on outdated strategies that hadn’t taken into account the unprecedented hot and dry conditions of the summer.
“If climate change continues its current path, what’s unprecedented is only unprecedented until it’s not,” he said during the meeting. “If this weather becomes more normalized, will that change the decisions being made in the future when it comes to managing similar fires?”
Variations of Micciche’s question came up throughout the meeting as representatives from various agencies spoke about how the Swan Lake Fire was managed over the summer.
Kristi Bullock, the fire management officer for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, started the meeting by introducing the Swan Lake Fire Story Map, an interactive online map that has comprehensive information about the fire, including a timeline of events and a comparison to other fires on the peninsula based on historical records. The map is available through the Borough’s Office of Emergency Management Website, kpboem.com.
When the Swan Lake Fire first started on June 5 of this year, it was one of nine fires started within three days on the peninsula. A series of lightning strikes, combined with the month of April being “unseasonably dry,” according to Bullock, attributed to the high number of fires.
When there are multiple fires occurring at once, Bullock said that the fires are “triaged,” or given priority based on their size and proximity to structures and communities. At the time, the Tustumena Lake Fire was given the highest priority due to it being in a “critical” fire protection area, while the Swan Lake Fire was 8 miles north of Sterling in an area that had already been designated for prescribed — or planned — burning.
By June 7, the Swan Lake Fire had grown to 471 acres and a Type 3 fire management organization was ordered to contain it. At the time, Bullock said, firefighters planned to focus their efforts on keeping the fire east of Sterling and north of the Sterling Highway.
Within the next two weeks the fire had reached 13,000 acres, and a Type 2 Incident Management Team was called in on June 16 to engage in more aggressive suppression efforts.
One of the key points of contention during the meeting was over the management of the fire just before strong winds caused it to flare up and cross the Sterling Highway on Aug. 18. At that time, a Type 3 organization with about 20 personnel was managing the fire, which was a significant decrease compared to the Type 2 teams. Refuge Manager Andy Loranger said that the fire had shown very little growth in the weeks leading up to that wind event, which was part of the reason for the scaling back of operations.
Micciche said that many residents felt that more should have been done to suppress the fire at that moment, before the situation got out of hand and ended up costing nearly $50 million to manage.
Howie Kent, fire management officer for the Kenai/Kodiak Area of the Alaska Division of Forestry, responded that in addition to the lack of behavior exhibited by the fire, hotshot crews had determined that there was no way to safely attack the fire near Upper Jean Lake, where it was located at the time. Other active fires, including the McKinley fire in the Mat-Su Valley, were also threatening communities across the state, so firefighting resources were spread thin.
Loranger said that helicopters continued to drop water on the fire during this time of decreased priority, but safety concerns prevented ground crews from attacking the fire near Mystery Creek as well. The high alpine habitat is very remote, Loranger said, and fire managers had to consider the ability to get firefighters out of there in case of emergency.
Norm McDonald, Wildland Fire and Aviation Program manager for the Division of Forestry, said that another issue came from the fact that the firefighting agencies had budgeted for what was “normal” in the past, which is something that needed to be reconsidered going forward.
“We need to think bigger and longer in Alaska,” McDonald said. “They used to just call it a fire season, now they’re calling it a fire year.”
Micciche said that he was aware of the budgetary restraints and was in talks with Gov. Mike Dunleavy to allocate additional funding for firefighting efforts in the coming year.
When it came to adapting for future fires, the participating agencies agreed that creating additional fuel breaks and encouraging more residents to make their properties Firewise would go a long way in terms of prevention.
“Fuel breaks and Firewise … that’s our best bet right there,” McDonald said.
“Ten years ago we weren’t doing fuel breaks around these communities,” Loranger said. “We’re doing that now.”
During the meeting, members of the public also had the opportunity to ask questions and make statements about fire management.
Cindy Rombach, a local Red Cross volunteer, commented that the degree to which information was being distributed to the community was much better here than in other parts of Alaska, thanking Borough Emergency Manager Dan Nelson for his role in coordinating the daily updates on the fire.
Ray DeBardelaben, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, suggested compiling a contact list of professional guides who could be available to transport firefighters up and down the river in the future. DeBardelaben also wanted to know if there was an avenue for financial relief for those on the peninsula whose businesses were negatively impacted by the fire activity.
Micciche said after the meeting that he was satisfied with the discussion, and thanked the agencies for participating as well as the more than 3,000 firefighters from across the country who were deployed at various times to combat the fire.
“What I heard today was engaged managers that were open to hearing adverse opinions and open to making changes to their approach,” Micciche said. “And the biggest takeaway is a heartfelt thanks for the firefighting efforts of the boots on the ground.”