Sterling fuel break moves forward

Progress is being made on a fuel break planned for the Sterling area where it meets the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

As previously reported by the Clarion, the Sterling Fuel Break will be a process of thinning black spruce trees along an 8.5-mile section of the border between Sterling and the refuge, near mile 76 of the Sterling Highway. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry is presently seeking bids for a contractor to “mechanically thin black spruce trees,” according to an online public notice.

While the contract is for 8 months, Area Forester Hans Rinke with the Soldotna office of the Division of Forestry said the work to put in a fuel break should take five to six weeks. The project is a collaborative effort between the refuge, the Division of Forestry, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game 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.

The intent of the fuel break is to “better protect area residents from wildfire, maintain firefighter safety, and increase decision space for land managers in response to new ignitions,” according to the release. The black spruce, or “hazardous (flammable) vegetation,” will be thinned and manipulated with heavy machinery and chainsaws, according to the release.

A similar fuel break already exists in the Funny River area.

“Both the Funny River fuel break and the break here in Sterling are … in burn scars,” Rinke said.

Those scars are left from fires that burned back in 1947, he said. Rinke said Division of Forestry staff are finding that the fuel in those areas is “very receptive to burn again.” This is a relatively short interval between large burns, Rinke said, and could indicate the likelihood of a severe fire every 50-60 years or so for those areas.

The fuel breaks in both Funny River and Sterling are preventative measures that have proven successful in the past, Rinke said.

“Any fuel break you do, obviously the maintenance of it is a long-term question,” he said.

The project is slated to continue over the course of several years, according to the release.

Bidding for project contractors should be closed by the third week in September, Rinke said.

Division of Forestry staff hope the fuel break will help facilitate some “vegetative changes” in the Sterling area, he said. By thinning the flammable black spruce trees, Rinke said the goal is to encourage recruitment of tree types with less fire potential, like aspen.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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