By Jenny Neyman
Be warned, Kenai Peninsula — though 306 square miles of forest have burned so far in the Funny River Fire, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods of fire danger yet. Fire season is far from over, although the peninsula has already seen as many wildfires from April 1 to June 16 as it typically does in an entire season.
By June 16 last year the Kenai-Kodiak Area had seen 35 fire incidents, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. This Monday, the sign outside the Forestry office in Soldotna read 76 fires. Last year, the area had 78 wildfires, total, for the entire standard season, from April 1 through Aug. 31 (though fires occasionally happen later in the year, too).
“The last time we had anywhere close to 78 incidents, which is what we had last year, was back in 1997, when we had 80 fires. The year before (1996), we had 101 fires. And we’re on course to be above 100 fires this year. So that gives you a little bit of an idea how much activity we could be looking at. We got some rain today, but it only takes three days to dry out and we’re back into it. We’re definitely on course for a big year,” said Howie Kent, Kenai-Kodiak Area fire management officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, on Monday.
Rain is a welcome occurrence for Forestry in a year like this.
“My guys are tired. We’ve literally put in a full season already and we’ve got a long way to go. This rain is nice to see. It gives us time to get our guys rested and get our gear refurbed and ready for the next round. And we’re ready to go, but it’s good to see the rain,” Kent said.
The Funny River Fire, the second largest recorded on the peninsula, required a massive outlay of personnel, equipment, time and money to combat and eventually contain from threatening structures and private property — at last count, about $10.8 million in costs. But it certainly hasn’t been the only incident to which Kenai-Kodiak Area firefighters have responded this season. Of the 76 so far in the Kenai-Kodiak Area, all but five incidents have been on the Kenai Peninsula. Nor do fires across Cook Inlet count to that total.
Luckily, no others have been a severe-enough threat to safety or structures to steal much limelight from the Funny River Fire, but with conditions this year being so ripe for combustion, it wouldn’t take much for a little smoke to lead to a big fire.
A mild winter with low-to-no snowpack and little moisture this spring created a dangerously dry situation on the peninsula, especially when paired with warm, sunny, windy days.
“The dead brown grasses are up, they’re not matted down, which gives a little more fire potential for a little more severe-burning, hotter fire because it would be standing up. It won’t last as long but will burn up a lot quicker and a lot hotter,” said Andy Alexandrou, Forestry public information officer, in Soldotna.
Fire conditions this spring were about two weeks ahead of schedule, Kent estimates. And even after rain, it only takes a few days of warmth and wind to dry things back out again. At that point, it doesn’t take much to spark a blaze. Mother Nature can do it, though that’s rare on the peninsula — only two of the area’s 78 fires last year were caused by lightning. Vastly more likely is a human cause.
“Ninety-five percent or more of ours are human caused,” Kent said.
That can mean a host of things, from more “oops” situations, like a tree falling onto a power line (power lines are manmade, after all) and sparking, or a lawnmower sparking off a rock, as was the case with a 1-acre fire Forestry extinguished last week near Nikolaevsk.
More often, though, it’s human fires gone awry — meaning campfires and debris burns that are abandoned and/or not properly extinguished.
“Folks walk away from their debris pile and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know the wind was going to come up and take my fire away from me.’ We get that quite a bit,” Kent said.
Perhaps the silver lining of the peninsula’s prevalence of human-caused wildfires is their preventability. Educate to eradicate fire risk and extinguish fires before they start.
That’s why Forestry devotes significant time and effort to outreach, disseminating fire safety information, staffing booths at community events and functions, giving school tours, putting ads in a statewide magazine and the like. Kent said he figures they spread their safety message to about 250,000 people on or coming to the peninsula a year through Forestry’s outreach and education efforts.
But many of those people are new each year, given how many visitors the peninsula sees in the summer.
“We get a lot of out-of-state, out-of-area people who come to the peninsula, even folks from Anchorage that we interface with from time to time, who don’t fully put their campfires out. They don’t take that extra time to make sure they put their fires out before they leave,” he said.
Education toward residents is more of a lasting investment, especially in the wake of a big blaze, such as the Funny River Fire. A Forestry fire prevention team was available to meet with residents and disseminate FireWise program information during and after the blaze, and has found much more interest than usual, Kent said. On average at an event like the Home Show, Forestry representatives will get about 10 people signing up for the FireWise program, he said. In just one meeting in the Funny River community, where residents were asked to evacuate at one point during the fire, the team signed up 47 people.
“A fire like this certainly raises people’s awareness about fire and how big it can become — bigger than all of us. It really is up to the homeowners individually to take the time to FireWise their place. We can give them all the information and help them in that way, give them the specs and things like that, but ultimately it is their responsibility to be fire ready and fire wise,” Kent said.
That means not only taking care of one’s own place, observing burn bans when announced and following the rules of burn permits and campfire safety, but being willing to speak up when others don’t.
“If they see something, please report it,” Kent said, by calling 911, the local Forestry office (on the central peninsula, that’s 260-4200) or 800-237-3633.
Creating — or exacerbating — battles among neighbors is not the goal in encouraging reports of suspicious fire activity, Kent said. But ensuring public safety is a high priority. And sometimes all it takes is minutes for a situation to go from something unsafe that might just result in a warning, to something out of control.
“Every call we receive we have to follow up on. So that can be costly, but at the same time, if somebody sees something but nobody calls it in and it gets established, we could be looking at another big fire again. So if someone sees something that doesn’t look right, call it in,” Kent said.
Forestry’s first goal in dealing with the public is education, Kent said, though citations are given, particularly for repeat or more-serious offenses.
“We try to educate those folks first. Most often it’s a written warning first. … We’re not the bad guys, we’re just trying to prevent them from bringing liability onto themselves. And if we have to return, and sometimes we do, and we don’t like to, but we will issue citations,” Kent said.
Fines and other consequences are determined in the court system. The bigger the fire that is caused, the bigger the consequences are likely to be. For instance, investigation is ongoing into who caused the Funny River Fire. That person could be on the hook for a court-determined portion of the firefighting bill.
Now that the tab is creeping toward $11 million, though, it’s unlikely the perpetrator will be able to shell out for all of it, unless Bill Gates happens to be found to have been playing with matches south of Funny River Road on the afternoon of May 19. More likely, the landowners will cover the costs based on the percentage of acreage on which suppression activity occurred. In this case, all but about 1,200 acres of the 195,858-acre fire was on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be the responsible agency, with the state picking up a portion for its 1,200 acres.
And agencies take a proactive role in prevention, too, Kent said. For instance, Forestry, through grant funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, completed a 200-foot-wide, 3.5-mile-long fuels break south of Funny River in the winter of 2013, precisely because the area did have a high danger or wildfire. And the U.S. FWS has been doing shaded fuel breaks — thinning trees to reduce the risk of fire jumping for one tree to the next — along Funny River Road after the Shanta Creek Fire in the area in 2009.
“The incident management team was real excited to see those breaks there because it gave them a place to make a stand and fight the fire. We may have certainly had a different outcome if those fuels breaks were not in place,” Kent said.
Agencies are looking at fuels reduction projects in other areas of the peninsula, too, he said, like Nikiski, Kenai, Sterling, Cooper Landing, Ninilchik and Anchor Point.
“We’re looking at other places on the peninsula between what we consider the wildland-urban interface, which is where all the homes are in the trees. Areas where we can make good, solid fuel breaks to prevent wildland fire from coming into a community and destroying a home,” Kent said.
Projects might even include Funny River, Soldotna and Kasilof, because even though the Funny River Fire consumed much of the wilderness surrounding those areas, it won’t be long before the area could burn again.
(The 2009 Shanta Creek Fire) wasn’t all that long ago, and actually I flew the (Funny River Fire) the following morning when this fire first took off and it was burning through the old Shanta Creek burn like no problem,” Kent said. “So we’re OK there for this year, probably. But the grass always comes back. That’s really our biggest carrier of fire is grass, and then it carries into the trees from there.”
Beyond occasional preventative projects, firefighters watch conditions, wait — nervously, in a year like this — and prepare to respond to the seemingly inevitable.
Kent said that Forestry monitors Remote Automated Weather Systems in the field that are linked to satellite and provide real-time information on fire conditions.
“We have values that we come up with to determine how dry the grasses are, how dry the smaller twigs and sticks are, how dry the logs are that are lying on the ground. How dry even the standing, live trees are. Which then gives us an idea of what to expect for fire behavior and fire danger for every day of the summer, so we can anticipate that and ramp up accordingly with resources … so we can mount an appropriate response when we get those calls,” Kent said.
That could mean more burn bans in store this summer, or perhaps more outreach regarding burn permits and proper campfire etiquette. In doing so it’s not that Forestry is out to ruin anyone’s summer. They’re out to preserve it from going up in smoke.
“Most often people don’t even know we put out 75 fires that didn’t make the news. … It’s just as disheartening for us to have a fire walk away from us as it is for the public to have to watch it for the next month. It kind of takes the wind out of our sails,” Kent said. “Our No. 1 is safety, protecting the public. We’re here to help protect the public.”