Refuge weighs impacts of Card Street fire

As the 7,657-acre Card Street fire continues to burn in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this week, refuge personnel have accepted the damage as a necessary trade off for keeping residents safe.

“We’re talking about relatively small impacts when you consider the refuge is 2 million acres,” said Refuge Manager Andy Loranger. “When you have a fire that has already affected communities, it’s very straightforward. The highest priority is going to be to protect people and (to) protect firefighters.”

Loranger said protective measures taken in the refuge, such as creating bulldozer lines to slow the fire’s progress, are “absolutely necessary” when structures and human lives are at stake.

Normally when a wildfire occurs within the refuge, it is left to run its course as a regular part of the refuge’s natural cycle. As soon as structures or residential areas enter the picture, Loranger said efforts to put the fire out are preferable to the standard procedure.

“We appreciate fire as an agent of change, but we don’t want it adjacent to communities where it could threaten other private houses and stuff,” said Fire Management Officer Kristi Bulock. “That is of dire concern to us.”

With the Card Street fire now reported at 20 percent containment, growth has slowed and changes to the refuge appear minimal. Loranger said bulldozer lines are not uncommon, and those created in response to fires 50 to 60 years ago are still visible on the refuge from above.

The lines will disturb the landscape and wildlife to a certain degree, he said.

“In Alaska, vegetation doesn’t recover very well,” Loranger said. “Any disturbed site nowadays has the potential for being colonized by some of the invasive weeds. Those aren’t the kinds of impacts we would normally view as positive.”

Loranger said there will be no long-term negative affects to animal wildlife on the refuge. Some animal groups, such as birds with nests, might experience loss in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but will bounce back, he said.

Chief of Visitor Services Matt Conner said the Card Street fire was able to burn so quickly through the refuge once it moved east of the Kenai Keys because of the forest composition.

“When it gets in the black spruce stands, it moves pretty quickly,” Conner said.

Conner said black spruce stands are known for supporting unpredictable spot fires, some of which can jump up to a half mile in front of the fire’s leading line.

“It’s a fire-adapted ecosystem; it’s meant to burn,” Bulock said. “Black spruce is just explosive, especially with these long solar days we have coming up … and the really high temperatures and low relative humidity. It carries fire, which proves a huge challenge in the urban interface because we don’t want impacts to this adjacent private land.”

Loranger said in the wake of every fire on the refuge, plans are created for clean up and rehabilitation to address some of the issues created by burning and bulldozer lines. He said refuge personnel are already drafting a post-fire plan.

Attempts to put soil surfaces back together and some work on bulldozer lines to prevent erosion are some of the post-fire measures taken to rehabilitate the refuge, Loranger said.

“One of the things we’re going to look at and assess … that may offer kind of a positive to this is the burning in the Skilak recreation area,” Loranger said.

Previously, the refuge supported a 25-mile hiking trail near the recreation area. Loranger said refuge personnel will work with the bulldozer lines made in that area to create the potential for similar hiking trails in the future.

Loranger could not give a cost estimate for the post-fire plan at this time.


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