Blaze left to burn — Small wildfire sparked in popular hunting area

By Jenny Neyman

Photos courtesy of Dr. David Wartinbee. A small wildlife burns in Chickaloon Bay near Point Possession on Saturday.

Redoubt Reporter

You know it’s been a quiet wildfire year on the Kenai Peninsula when the season’s biggest blaze comes in late October, doesn’t warrant firefighting effort and might even have gone unnoticed were it not smack underneath the main flight path between Anchorage and Kenai.

Howie Kent, fire management officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry for the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, said that a small wildfire was reported Oct. 13 in Chickaloon Bay on the shore of Turnagain Arm, about 20 miles west of Hope and a few miles southeast of Point Possession. It’s been reported as being about 1,000 feet long by a few thousand feet wide.

“We’re monitoring it. A lot of aircraft fly over there and we have received a lot of calls on it, and we sure appreciate those calls. We get information on it and can check reports against each other,” Kent said.

The fire is on Kenai Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge land classified as limited response. Kent said the refuge and his office are in agreement to keep an eye on the fire but to let it burn unless it spreads closer to habitation.

“It’s not a threat to people or structures or all that, so we’re going to allow it to burn and maybe create a little moose habitat and such. They (refuge managers) are definitely aware of it, but because it’s so late in the season and we’ve received some rain here, we’re going to allow that fire to do what it would naturally do,” Kent said.

Weather has taken a turn for the cool and damp this month, limiting the risk of the fire spreading considerably.

“With fall coming on we’re getting more into a wetter, cooler pattern here. And, of course, our daylight is decreasing every day,” Kent said. “We’re not seeing it become an issue. If it does we will deal with it. I still have half a dozen firefighters here with equipment. We can put it to bed pretty quickly.”

It appears the fire was human-caused, Kent said. The closest lightning strike recorded in the area was about 25 miles away. Chickaloon Bay is a popular destination for hunters, and the fire appears to have started just above the high tideline.

“Somebody probably pulled in a boat and started a warming fire. It looks like that could have been the cause. I know a lot of people go up there to do some duck hunting and moose hunting and other recreation,” he said.

Kent said that this blaze makes 61 wildfires overall for the year, on both the peninsula and Kodiak, and is probably the biggest yet, topping an 8.2-acre fire on Kodiak. Before this, the biggest fire of the year on the peninsula was only about 3.5 to 4 acres. Next to the 55,438-acre Caribou Hills fire of 2007 and 13,000-acre Shanta Creek fire of 2009, a 10-or-so-acre blaze in an unpopulated area is hardly worth mentioning.

Still, it was a busy year for wild-land firefighters on the peninsula, just not as attention-grabbing a year as one with blazes consuming thousands of acres. Kent said that the region sees an average of 45 to 50 wildfires a year, so 61 is a little high for number of incidents. And crews responded to a whopping 117 calls.

“Even though it seems to be a small fire season we were very active. We had a lot of false alarms. There was a lot of human activity and a lot of people running around out there. We stayed busy,” he said.

May was particularly active, with 35 fires. Typically, the time between snowmelt and green-up is particularly dangerous for wildfires. This spring started with conditions favorable to low fire activity, but that changed after the end of April.

“We didn’t get that early, active season we were thinking we were going to get. We got some timely rain. But come May that was all out the window. There were I think three days straight where the wind blew like 35 miles an hour. In those three days we had 15 fires, about five to six a day,” Kent said.

While land managers are appreciative of the rejuvenating effects fire can have on forests, particularly in regenerating moose habitat, fire and human habitation don’t mix. The key to keeping an active fire season from turning into a destructive one is in response.

“Those little fires can become big fires depending on how quickly they get reported and how quickly we get on them,” Kent said. “Luckily, in the summertime we have quite a few resources at our fingertips (including a helicopter crew). In May, as soon as a fire call comes in it was an automatic launch. Getting on those fires and keeping them small, that’s really the key to success. And I really have to attribute that to our firefighters. They’ve got to get a plug. They work their butts off, they really do.”

With 95 to 98 percent of wildfires on the peninsula being human-caused, the ultimate key to ensuring a nondestructive fire season is in prevention. That message holds true even in October, as the fire in Chickaloon Bay demonstrates.

“Anybody out there recreating, even though it seems to be wet, a fire can still get away,” Kent said. “You’ve got to be really paying attention to what you’re doing. Take extra effort to put that fire out, and when you think it’s out stick your bare hand in there and make sure there’s no heat left in it. If people would do that there wouldn’t be these issues.”

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