By Carey Restino
By all accounts, the Kenai Peninsula has had some extraordinary weather this month. Day after day of warm, sunny weather, however, has done more than add a little extra color to the cheeks of local residents — it has dried grasses and lowered humidity to a dangerous level prime for wildfire.
A fire on Alan Drive off East End Road in Homer on Sunday grew to a half acre before it was put out by firefighters, said Andy Alexandrou, public information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry in Soldotna. Luckily, wind has been minimal in the area and the fire didn’t spread. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Alexandrou said initial reports were that it involved sparks from a power line.
“That fire carried really well,” Alexandrou said. “It wasn’t a rip-roaring fire, but it still had 4-foot flame lengths.”
Much of the state is under red-flag conditions, a fire term for extreme fire danger, but the Kenai Peninsula is not at this point because it is lacking wind, Alexandrou said. Still, it is in planning level five, an extreme fire danger rating.
“We have temperatures climbing into the 70s and 80s and 90s,” Alexandrou said. “It’s a fine line.”
The extreme conditions mean all burn permits are suspended until further notice, and even burn barrels are prohibited until the weather shifts. Kenai Peninsula residents are still allowed to have campfires, but are advised to use extreme caution and to keep fires to smaller than 3-by-3 feet, Alexandrou said.
While other parts of the peninsula have greened up, the Homer area is still dealing with a dangerous mix of hot, dry temperatures and an abundance of dead, dry fuels, Alexandrou said. While fire crews are on high alert, patrolling the peninsula and staging in areas where they are most likely to be needed, the real responsibility lies with residents to be careful, Alexandrou said. Almost no fires on the southern Kenai Peninsula are started by lightning, historically — they are almost all man-made.
While lighting burn piles off at this time of year under these weather conditions is obviously a bad idea, residents would be well advised to think beyond just that egregious situation when it comes to potential ignition sources. A fire in Caribou Hills near Ninilchik in 2007 was started when sparks from a grinder being used to sharpen a shovel ignited dry grass in the area. It destroyed a total of 55,438 acres of wilderness, and about 197 structures, including 88 cabins and other homes and 109 outbuildings. Other fires have been started from people driving four-wheelers and other recreation vehicles through fields. The hot exhaust system has been known to ignite dry fuels.
Regardless of whether you meant to or not, if you light a fire, you are liable for the cost of suppression and any damage you caused to the property of others.
Alexandrou said that the statewide high fire danger over the next week has caused the state agency to call in an extra air tanker capable of dumping retardant on fires from the Lower 48. But hot, dry weather is expected to stay with Alaska at least until the end of the week.
“The fire danger will remain high until the weather moderates,” Alexandrou said.