Fire safety doused — Cohoe gravel pit closed to Firewise use

By Joseph Robertia

Photos courtesy of Leif Jenkinson. A slash pile burns at the Aurora Gravel Pit along Cohoe Loop Road in 2008, as part of the Firewise program. The Department of Transportation closed the pit to slash collection this June.

Redoubt Reporter

After several years of being an example of how to live safely in an area with high wildfire risk, and being the second Firewise community established in the state, the residents of Cohoe Loop Road, south of Kasilof, found themselves stymied this summer in having a place to bring their burnable yard waste. While the inconvenience initially was temporary, the situation may end up becoming permanent.

“I’ve had calls from people furious about it. Some were mad they couldn’t bring slash to the pit, others had already loaded up a truck or trailer and then found out they couldn’t get in. I had one guy call and yell for 10 minutes before I could calm him down, and I’m just a volunteer. I’m not even getting paid for any of this,” said Leif Jenkinson, Cohoe resident and one of the founding board members of the Cohoe Firewise organization.

Nationally, Firewise is a cooperative effort among local, state, federal and private agencies and organizations to promote fire safety in the wildland/urban interface, after it was realized that firefighters do not have the resources to defend every home during a wildfire. The program teaches homeowners how to reduce their risks, defend against and prepare for a wildfire.

In Alaska, the Horseshow Lake community, located within the larger unincorporated Big Lake community, became the first Firewise community in the state in 2006, largely in response to the Miller’s Reach fire of 1996, which consumed many homes in the area.

In 2007 the Cohoe Loop area become the second Firewise community in the state, as a response to a Cohoe Loop-area fire in 2006 that burned for more than a week and engulfed more than 95 acres of land.

The fire started after a Cohoe resident, who was attempting to burn slash on her property, had her fire get away from her. She never left the fire unattended, but was later charged with being in violation of the terms of her burn permit, having an inadequate firebreak and having the fire spread/damage the property of another.

“We’ve really been trying to avoid that kind of thing happening again,” said Jenkinson.

Following a community assessment conducted by the Division of Forestry, the Cohoe Firewise

Kids warm themselves in front of a slash pile fire at a “Trunk or Treat” event held at the Firewise site on Cohoe Loop Road in 2011.

group organized a community cleanup day to encourage residents to remove beetle-killed spruce and piles of slash from their properties.

They also began doing home assessments and helping residents — such as the elderly or disabled — haul off slash to a site established at the Alaska Department of Transportation-owned Aurora Gravel Pit, at Mile 14.1 of Cohoe Loop Road.

There, the slash was burned once a year at Halloween. The annual bonfire became part of the community’s “Trunk or Treat” event, which typically is attended by more than 200 people. In addition to giving out candy to the costumed children, Firewise materials also were distributed to their parents.

The gravel pit, utilized by not just Cohoe residents, but also those of the surrounding communities of Kasilof and Clam Gulch, closed in June. The reasons for the closure are many, according to Carl High, Kenai Peninsula district superintendent for DOT.

“In anticipation of doing a chip-seal project this fall we wanted to stockpile our materials in the pit,” High said, referring to a planned project to repair three miles of Cohoe Loop Road from the Sterling Highway to Webb Ramsell Road. However, the project has been pushed back.

“We won’t be doing it until next spring now,” High said.

In addition to the initial plan to stockpile materials at the pit, High said that, despite the locked gate at the entrance, people were still dumping illegal and nonburnable materials in the pit.

“It was for beetle-killed trees and brush, not construction waste and demolition materials, and the illegal dumping was becoming a big deal,” he said.

Jenkinson said that, despite his best efforts, he, too, was frustrated by the problem of people dumping nonburnable materials.

“I’ve personally pulled out an entire truckload of stuff someone illegally dumped,” he said. “It annoys me immensely people can’t go the extra mile and a half to the transfer site to dump the stuff where it’s supposed to go.”

High said that the closure of the pit also came as the result of the Firewise community members not reapplying for their annual permit.

“Their (Department of Natural Resources) permit expired. Originally the application was for the (Kenai Peninsula) Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program, and the permit lapsed, although it’s not a big deal for them to reapply for the permit,” High said.

Jenkinson said that many of the people who used to oversee renewing the permits have either retired or moved on to other positions, but he would like to see the permit renewed. He said he would pursue it himself, but he is hoping others will join in the cause.

“We have to find a place to burn this slash. That’s still the plan. Hopefully a town meeting will provide some support and new volunteers, because we can’t go back to people burning slash on their properties. It’s just too dangerous,” he said.

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