I am thankful for the presence and work of the Great Basin Incident Management Team and the Borough’s Office of Emergency Management. Their focus is suppression before the fire reaches a home. But what happens then?
The protection of a home exposed to the fire front is handled by Structure Protection teams apparently composed of local firefighters. That’s a different organization from the Incident Management Team, and our expectations need to be realistic.
I live in Kenai Keys, a subdivision west of the Swan Lake fire. Our subdivision would be threatened by wind blowing from the east, which up until this summer was the prevailing wind direction for us from Skilak Lake. I expect it still is, but much of this summer has been without wind and the windstorm we had a week ago was from the north.
We’ve had two close calls from wildfires in the last five years and the lessons we learned are worth sharing. The fire crews that are here now can only do so much. Responsibility for that last few feet before the fire reaches your house is yours, not the firefighters.
In May of 2014, the Funny River Fire burned past the south edge of Browns Lake heading east, a distance of 3 miles from us. At some point between the upper and middle forks of the Killey River, it became a crown fire burning above black spruce trees. The fire front created its own wind and raced north about a mile to the Kenai River. We could see flames above the trees and hear the roar for about 30 minutes before the fire front reached us. There were no fire maps and no warnings from fire crews or the borough.
We had the Kenai River between us and the fire, which at that point is about 300 feet. The fire front curled over the far bank of the river and did not enter our subdivision. However, burning trees behind the front launched embers in the wind that settled in our subdivision. We had several structure fires and one fire in root wads on the bank of the river. There were enough of us remaining in the subdivision to control the fires, but we learned some lessons.
Most important, we can’t count on fire crews for close-in defense. The fires in our subdivision were from wind-carried embers that jumped the river. The fire crews were caught on the other side of the river, and they didn’t know we had structures burning. Armed with garden hoses, we doused the easy fires in gutters, roofs and decks. After what seemed like an eternity, the first fire crew arrived from Kasilof. They attacked the spot fires and were not hesitant as we had been, to cut into a structure to douse fires. They also called for helicopter support with water buckets. Fire crews continued to arrive later that day and began grid walking through our subdivision. It was reassuring to say the least, but without our being there and taking action the damage would have been far worse.
The lesson from that fire was to be better prepared. Many of us acquired fire pumps and hoses, and we recognized the importance of being fire-wise on our properties. A neighbor across the river whose land had been enveloped in the fire front, miraculously survived with much of his spruce trees and structures undamaged. He had pumped water from the river onto his land for several days before the fire arrived. Whether this saved his property, or it was another factor, the lesson was that you as a property owner can’t off-load to fire crews the responsibility for protecting your property in the “home stretch.”
The second fire that reached our subdivision was the Card Street fire in June 2015. It initially threatened from the north, but fire crews stationed at Dot’s Landing were able to defend that front. We watched from our subdivision as spray from their firehoses prevented the burn from moving downslope to houses along the river. But the fire burned around to the west of our subdivision toward the wildlife refuge. We had our own fire pumps running, and a structure protection team was in the subdivision on the west side working from a boat harbor. They were good coaches on what we should expect. The Canadian water scooper aircraft were working the fire front initially on the north side of us and later on the west side. These guys were good.
But later that day our local wind shifted and began blowing a part of the fire to the west — in our direction. It became a crown fire and moved fast. By this time our pumps had wet the ground around many houses. As the fire front approached, we left pumps running, and in my case, evacuated. The structures protection team was ordered to pull back to Dot’s Landing, but some residents remained and kept the pumps running. The fire engulfed a Fish and Game cabin just west of the subdivision and continued to burn toward us. We’re not sure what turned the fire, whether it was wet ground or the water scoopers dropping from above, but the fire turned about 100 feet from the edge of the subdivision next to the river. The structure protection team returned as soon as the fire front stalled, and they kept the after-fires under control. We had fire crews from all over Alaska, along with some hotshots from the Lower 48 based out of our subdivision to fight the fire in the wildlife refuge. Fires burned around us for several days and at one point a backfire was lit from Dot’s Landing to Kenai Keys Road to burn off an area that they believed would eventually burn.
That’s two fires in the past five years. This morning the Swan Lake Fire is 5 mile east of us with winds forecast to blow our way tomorrow. We are encouraged by the efforts of the firefighters, especially in constructing a fire break and installing water hoses between Skilak Lake and the Sterling Highway. We are also appreciative of the Borough’s Office of Emergency Management who coordinates the local fire crews. But we’re starting our pumps.
Frank Turpin, Sterling