Category Archives: wildfire

Better birding in the Card —  Wildfire should improve habitat for Skilak wildlife

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. While in the short term, some animals many have succumbed to the Card Street Fire that burned in portions of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this spring, in the long run many species, such as this ruby-crowned kinglet seen from the Hidden Creek Trail, will benefit from the new foliage that will return, according to biologist Todd Eskelin.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. While in the short term, some animals many have succumbed to the Card Street Fire that burned in portions of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this spring, in the long run many species, such as this ruby-crowned kinglet seen from the Hidden Creek Trail, will benefit from the new foliage that will return, according to biologist Todd Eskelin.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

The smoke has dissipated and the ash is starting to cool on the nearly 8,000-acre Card Street Fire that scorched its way east from Sterling into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Among the acreage burned is a portion of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area. The immediate concern when wildfires strike so close to human habitation is for people and their homes. But as that threat wanes, another concern rises — how does the blaze affect the animals that make those woods their home?

“It’s a question people always ask after a fire, but fire is a natural component of the landscape here, and while in the short run a few animals were undoubtedly lost, in the long run it will reshape the environment to benefit wildlife,” said Todd Eskelin, a biologist with the refuge and its resource adviser during and following the fire.

While last year five wolf pups made headlines when pulled from their smoldering den following the Funny River Fire, Eskelin said that most of the larger species — wolves, bears and moose —seem to have fared well while fleeing the Card Street Burn.

“We didn’t have a massive, several-mile-long wall of fire that moved quickly consuming everything in its path. There were times when this fire grew rapidly, but it still burned in patches and around swamps, muskegs, boggy areas and ponds, and animals are pretty adept at using these areas and doing what they have to do to survive,” he said.

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Bugs out — Wildfires, warm weather bring beetles calling

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. The white-spotted bettles sawyer are easily identified by antennae that double the length of their bodies.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. The white-spotted bettles sawyer are easily identified by antennae that double the length of their bodies.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

The typical response when seeing a raging forest fire is to run the opposite direction.

The white-spotted sawyer didn’t get that memo.

“They’re attracted to the smoke, and they bore into trees as soon as there’s no fire. They’re on it quick,” said Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician at the Soldotna office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.

The species of beetle shows up on the Kenai Peninsula in July and August. Their coloring is black, or black with white speckling, as the name would imply, and they can grow to about three-quarters of an inch in length with scimitar-shaped antennae that nearly double their body size. The antennae aid easy identification by novice entomologists.

“Since they fly, they’ll land on people or people will see them on their car or around the yard. They’re actually fairly common, but we see a lot more of them after a fire because partially damaged trees emit a pheromone that is a calling card for the sawyers,” Chumley said. Continue reading

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Cooler weather chills Card Fire growth — Management moves into mop-up phase as blaze stays away from neighborhoods

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Bob Albee, Incident Commander for Team III out of Washington, spoke to Sterling residents about the Card Street Fire in a community meeting Sunday at the Sterling Community Center.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Bob Albee, Incident Commander for Team III out of Washington, spoke to Sterling residents about the Card Street Fire in a community meeting Sunday at the Sterling Community Center.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Anyone bemoaning the weekend’s cooler temperatures and cloudy skies wasn’t sitting in the Card Street Fire public information meeting at the Sterling Community Center on Sunday afternoon.

As Bob Albee, Incident Commander for Team III out of Washington, told the crowd the break from the hot, dry weather of last week has helped firefighters make progress on the fire, nearly completing a containment line in the Skilak Lake area, on the northeast flank of the fire.

“I really don’t think we had any fire growth yesterday, and I’m not sure if we’re going to have any fire growth today,” Albee said.

The fire was holding at 7,657 acres, or just about 12 square miles, with the active burning toward the east in the Skilak area. The west end of the fire that had threatened homes and destroyed 11 structures in the Feuding Lane and Kenai Keys areas continued to be calm, allowing crews time to mop up hot spots.

“There are some smokes out there in this west end that people are going to see, and we’re going to get to them, but our priority is to work from the outside in and around the structures first,” Albee said.

Stewart Turner, Team III fire behavior analyst, said that the cooler, more humid conditions over the weekend dampened fire activity. It’s mostly creeping in the ground and smoldering in big fuels. The fire is still hot enough to cause trees to combust, but the ground surface has moistened a little with the recent higher humidity, so when trees do torch, the embers they throw off aren’t sparking new spot fires.

But the duff layer below the surface is still incredibly dry, and as the weather heats up, so will fire activity.

“When we get that sunshine back, lower the humidity, increase the temperatures, when that tree torches and throws those embers out then it will start to spread again. That’s what’s going to cause problems in future until this thing’s wrapped up, contained and put to bed. So, what you’re all looking for is rain,” Turner said.

And not just an afternoon sprinkle here or a day of rain there. It’ll take what’s called a season-ender event, when the dominant weather pattern changes from June and July’s typically dry trend, to fall’s rainier pattern.

“When is that going to happen? It’s very difficult to tell because this year is so abnormal,” Turner said.

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Neighbors return to new normal

Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For as many questions as Sterling residents had for fire management officials at a public information meeting on the Card Street Fire on Sunday, they had even more expressions of thanks. Several rounds of applause echoed in the gym at the Sterling Community Center as residents got an update on the history and projected future of the fire.

“I just want to thank you guys, because on Tuesday and Wednesday this was a monster wildfire, looking out the window at my place. And here it is Sunday we’re all sitting comfortably here not really too worried about it,” said Bob Breeden, who lives off Adkins Road, across the Sterling Highway from Card Street.

With fire activity calmed by the cloudy, cooler weather over the weekend, Bob Albee, Incident Commander for Team III out of Washington, said firefighters were able make more headway against the blaze, which was 7,352 acres, about 11.5 square miles, Tuesday morning. It’s no longer a direct threat to homes in the Kenai Keys, Feuding Lane area.

The evacuations were lifted at 1 p.m. (Saturday) because we felt everything was safe enough for everybody to get back into their homes,” Albee said.

Things might not be quite as residents left them, however. With 34 loads of retardant dumped on the fire the first day alone, it’s quite possible residents returned home to a film of red goop coating the property. Don’t be alarmed, said Alaska Division of Forestry Fire Management Officer Howie Kent, but don’t let it sit any longer than necessary, either.

“Mostly what it is is fertilizer,” he said. “That’s why you see the grass really grow next year. For getting it off like your cars, boats, houses, it is corrosive. It needs to come off right away. The best way to do that is probably soap and water and a scrub brush. … Depending on what kind of material it is, if it’s a porous material it may stain for a long time, it may just be stained for good. The sooner you can get that stuff off, the better.”

The Red Cross recommends wearing a facemask when cleaning fire retardant. The Sterling Community Center has some, if residents need them. Also, don’t let pets drink water mixed with retardant, and especially don’t use bleach to clean it up, as there’s ammonia in the retardant.

Power was restored to the subdivisions by Saturday, and a few residents had questions about restoring gas service, too.

“It’s getting cool at night, and it would be nice to have our furnaces running,” said a resident of the Kenai Keys area.

Charlie Pierce, division manager for Enstar Natural Gas, said that the delay is due to safety concerns.

“You heard about hot spots. One of the unique characteristics of natural gas is it burns. We’re playing it safe. We apologize for the inconvenience of you not being able to take hot shower or stay warm,” Pierce said.

Crews needed to finish re-energizing the line and purging the system before service could be restored, but that was to happen Monday afternoon. At that point, residents can call Enstar at 262-9334 or talk to one of six crews working in the area to get on the list to have a crew come re-establish service.

“We will get to it as quick as we can. It’s going to take some time. There are about 190 residents in the area without service right now. We will take them on a first come, served call basis,” he said.

Meanwhile, the western end of Skilak Lake Loop Road to Engineer Lake remains closed due to fire activity. The eastern end to the Upper Skilak boat launch is open. It’s not an ideal time of year to close the popular trails, cabins and campgrounds, said Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Andy Loranger, but it’s necessary.

“This area is a really important recreational area. We have several campgrounds and trails and boat launches. We’ve closed those facilities for the time being to ensure the safety of the public, and basically to make sure that firefighters can do what they do best,” Loranger said. “… Our intention is to on a daily basis review the situation and based on the best advice of the team we’ll get that place opened back up just as soon as we can.”

Officials told the audience it was their goal to get everything back to normal as soon as possible.

“We know it’s been a big, long siege for you guys, being out of your homes, with no power and kind of dealing with a shock and awe experience that you’re probably not going to forget. Now comes the cleaning up time and the recovery phase for all of this,” said Fire Information Officer Terry Anderson.

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Evacuation in the Card? Sterling residents anxiously watch advance of wildfire

Photos courtesy of Chris Hanna. A plume of smoke marks the progression of the Card Street Fire on Monday night as it nears homes in the east Sterling area.

Photos courtesy of Chris Hanna. A plume of smoke marks the progression of the Card Street Fire on Monday night as it nears homes in the east Sterling area.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

On the bright side, if one can be found in the midst of a wildfire raging near your home, Kurt Strausbaugh figures he lost about 5 pounds, from the stress and exertion of trying to pack up his house as the Card Fire in eastern Sterling approached to about a half mile from his residence Monday night.

“I needed it, anyhow,” he said, ruefully. “It’s so hot loading belongings up, and not eating, scrambling, just grabbing and packing — no organization to it, just loading things up in the vehicles you have at hand.”

Not that evacuation stress is anyone’s idea of a good diet. Nor are billowing plumes of smoke and torches of bright-red flames engulfing the trees beyond your backyard anyone’s idea of enjoying the view from the deck. But that’s what Strausbaugh did Monday night, anxiously waiting to see whether he and his wife, Tammy, should hop in their vehicles and go.

“We have a lovely view when the fire isn’t chasing you down,” he said.

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Safe from bears? Don’t fall for it — Delayed onset of winter weather leaves nature stuck in autumn

Redoubt Reporter file photos By mid-November, most bears are in their dens for winter. This year, however, a late onset of winter has extended bear activity, as well.

Redoubt Reporter file photos
By mid-November, most bears are in their dens for winter. This year, however, a late onset of winter has extended bear activity, as well.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

By the calendar, it’s winter in Alaska. Usually by the end of November, the Kenai Peninsula has gotten at least one coating of a couple inches of snow and marked temperatures dipping into the teens or single digits. But this year, winter as usual has yet to arrive. With temperatures in the 30s and just a scant dusting of snow, it feels more like October than nearly December, and wildlife aren’t falling for it supposedly being winter.

Bears, in particular, are still in fall activity mode.

“We had reports last week of bears getting in to garbage or Dumpsters,” said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, on Monday.

A brown bear was reported getting into Dumpsters and breaking into a garage seeking garbage stored inside in a neighborhood about five miles out Funny River Road, Selinger said.

The Kenai Peninsula Bears page on Facebook has a few reports of bear sightings, as well, including a black bear checking out a neighbor’s chickens on St. Theresa Road in Sterling, posted Nov. 19. Another black bear was seen heading into Woodland Estates in Kenai, posted Nov. 19, and a walker reported seeing fresh bear tracks near Hidden Creek on Nov. 4.

Selinger said that his office gets reports of bears out and about every month of the year on the Kenai, so there’s no guaranteed safe period when all bears are tucked away for the winter, but most by now are denned up for the winter.

“Generally speaking, the majority of your animals, by about mid-November, most should be in the den. Some animals go in a little earlier than others, but usually by now they’re all pretty much denned up,” he said.

“Daylight, snow cover, how much fat they have on them — there’s a lot of factors that can play into it. Usually they want to wait until the ground freezes a little bit and makes it better for digging dens, they don’t cave in as easily. It’s a lot of factors all rolled into one. Generally speaking, the warmer it is the more likely they are to stay out longer,” Selinger said.

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Wildfire threat not just a Funny matter — Peninsula already at yearly average of number of fires

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Fire was a small blaze when first reported May 19, but due to dangerously dry conditions on the Kenai Peninsula, quickly grew out of control. While it’s certainly the largest fire to hit the peninsula so far this year, it’s far from the only, and likely not the last as dry conditions persist.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Fire was a small blaze when first reported May 19, but due to dangerously dry conditions on the Kenai Peninsula, quickly grew out of control. While it’s certainly the largest fire to hit the peninsula so far this year, it’s far from the only, and likely not the last as dry conditions persist.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

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.

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