Local fire departments have been responding to illegal fires since a burn closure was issued by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on June 17.
Troopers have responded to several calls to put out illegal fires. Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker said his department responded to a woman cooking over an open fire on the beach, as well as a group of juveniles attempting to start a fire on the beach at Daubenspeck park on Thursday.
Tucker said he is especially concerned about open burning on beaches. He said people tend to think that because they are close to a body of water, starting a fire will be less dangerous. In fact, he said it is just the opposite.
“The real big thing is burning on the beaches — you just can’t do it,” Tucker said. “People think if it’s on the beach it’s on the sand.”
The danger with beach fires is that they are close to very dry grass, and are susceptible to high winds coming off the bodies of water. Under the ban, all open fires including campfires, charcoal fires and fires in barrels, are prohibited.
Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Wes Perkins said the prevalence of large homes and structures along most beaches creates the threat of a dangerous fire, should open burns get out of control.
“It’s very dry. My house is one of the houses on that beach out there, and that grass is dryer, if anything, on the beach, just because the wind is usually stronger out there,” Perkins said. “All it takes is one ember to get (a fire) going. On the beach, it’s actually even more critical.”
Another concern for area responders is the upcoming dip net season from July 10 through the end of the month, Tucker said. Thousands of Alaskans come to Kenai for the season from around the state. Tucker said they crowd the beaches, and there is a possibility many of them will be unaware of the burn ban.
The Kenai Police Department increases summer staff to maintain safety during dip net season. Lt. Dave Ross said six temporary enforcement officers have been hired to handle the influx of people.
“They’re primarily used for the dip net fishing,” Ross said. “The fire department usually handles fires where they shouldn’t be … but certainly (temporary enforcement officers) could respond and let those people know where they can and can’t have fires.”
Temporary enforcement officers are not armed, Ross said, and would have to call for backup from the police or fire department to handle a larger violation or emergency.
Nikiski Fire Chief James Baisden said his firefighters haven’t had to respond to instances of people violating the burn ban. While he said the Nikiski area won’t feel the effects of dip net season, his department is still on the watch for people trying to burn fires too early.
“I think when most people see the rain come they want to start burning immediately,” Baisden said. “Our biggest issue of course is just holding tight because we still have some dry weather.”
Division of Forestry Public Information Officer Andy Alexandrou said he has received several calls from people around the peninsula asking why they still cannot have fires after the weekend rain. He and fire department personnel explained that burn closures are not enacted lightly, and it would be harder to rescind the ban only to reinstate it in a few days when temperatures rise again and the land dries out.
With temperatures predicted to climb back to 70 degrees later this week, maintaining the burn ban is even more important.
“We haven’t gotten a good, soaking rain yet,” Perkins said. “If we could get a steady rain for at least a week, that would be nice. If you do (lift a ban), then it’s even more confusing than it is to just install one in the first place.”
Alexandrou said the decision to institute a burn ban comes from far above the local Division of Forestry offices. He said the ban will likely be in place until the peninsula receives adequate rainfall.
“It’ll probably stay in effect until after the Fourth of July,” Alexandrou said. “The moisture’s been spotty, and folks need to realize that the closure will not be lifted until we get a substantial amount of moisture in the mainland also.”
Perkins said Soldotna responders have been called out to handle a number of illegal open burns since the closure was put in place.
He said one issue is that people who apply for burn permits do not read them thoroughly. Some people are not always aware there is a ban in place, and won’t hear about it unless they call to report their planned burns, as the permits instruct.
“We appreciate them getting the burn permit like they’re supposed to,” Perkins said. “When you get a burn permit, that doesn’t mean you can just burn. You still have to call in on the day of the burn.”
Under the burn ban, electric or gas grills and fish smokers are still permitted.
Tucker warned that even legal means of heating and cooking can pose a danger. He said the Kenai Fire Department responded on Thursday to a small deck fire caused by a malfunctioning propane grill. The fire was quickly extinguished and caused only minor damage.
“Even with allowed stuff there’s still a danger with using anything that produces heat out in the conditions today,” Tucker said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.