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Time to be fire wise

Dry days increase fire hazard on Peninsula

Posted: May 17, 2012 - 9:36am  |  Updated: May 17, 2012 - 12:01pm
A firefighter works a blaze that burned near Ciechanski Road several years ago. This is the time of year when wildfire danger typically is at its highest, according to fire officials.  M. Scott Moon
M. Scott Moon
A firefighter works a blaze that burned near Ciechanski Road several years ago. This is the time of year when wildfire danger typically is at its highest, according to fire officials.

Standing on a hard surface becomes taxing after too long, having had his knee replaced for the second time this winter, but that hasn’t stopped Lief Jenkinson of Kasilof from organizing Cohoe Firewise. 

The local wildfire safety group has few members. However, Jenkinson remains energetic about the group’s work. 

“If you need to have your property cleaned up and slash hauled away, or your 90-year-old neighbor can’t handle a chainsaw anymore, we’ll try and put a team together and do it,” he said last week at a community meeting at Central Emergency Services’ Station Six. 

The dry grass season of May creates hazards for Kenai Peninsula residents. Local safety officials are urging residents to postpone burning yard debris on their properties; it’s too dry. The Kasilof group is continuing to help neighbors protect their homes from wildfires, but all residents can take similar measures. 

The dead, wild grass common throughout spring coupled with consistent winds causes dryness, which increases the potential for a wildfire, said Sharon Roesch, Alaska Division of Forestry fire prevention officer. 

“We are having, I believe, a late start, but we are definitely in the dry grass season,” she said. “We have a little bit of humidity, but with the winds that have been happening it could carry a grass fire.”

The majority of forest fires occur in May, she said. In 2006, a Cohoe Loop area fire engulfed about 95 acres of land. 

Dry season will last into June. During that time, the forest floor will thaw and dry, creating new fire hazards. As green grass appears, it creates layers of vegetation. The accumulated grasses carry fire underneath the healthy, living green vegetation, Roesch said.

The fires burn deeper and into the root systems of trees. As a result, it takes longer to suppress a fire, she said. 

“Although, Alaska fires are predominantly characterized by surface fuels (dead, dry grass),” Roesch said. 

Year-round burn permits are required in Kenai, Homer and Seward. Small pile permits — handfed piles of slash — are available online at forestry.alaska.gov/burn, or residents can call its Soldotna office at 260-4262 for more information. Forestry conducts residential inspections and issues permits on-sight for larger projects. 

CES officials have said residents should hold off on burning yard debris. The severe windstorm in November 2011, which caused more than 13,000 homes to lose power, toppled trees and created disorder among many Peninsula properties. Spring’s warmer temperatures have residents ready to groom their yards. 

“Because of the windstorm, we’re just telling people to be careful,” said CES Fire Chief Chris Mokracek. “I know they’re trying to clean up the debris and branches, and everyone is itching to get out there, but it’s too dry.”

Roesch said most fires on the Peninsula are human-caused. And when fires spread quickly do to winds “the fuel feeding the fire changes from only vegetation to include structures.”

The mission of FireWise is helping clean properties, as well as fire education. Specifically, they teach neighbors to make their homes defensible against wildfires. 

“We do fire inspections of homes, the outside of the property, so people can get an evaluation and know what they can do protect their homes for if and when a wildfire occurs,” FireWise President Jenkinson said. “Because, as you know around here, it’s more a matter of when, not if.” 

Jenkinson spent the meeting chatting with familiar and new faces, sharing tips with the group. 

He drew a diagram on a whiteboard displaying the critical areas around a home. At 30 feet, residents should remove low-lying plants full of sap. Machinery, such as snowmachines, are to be moved away from the house. At 60 feet, clumps of trees, woodpiles and gas tanks are acceptable, but the grass is best kept short. At 100 feet, denser vegetation is common, although property owners should thatch tall dead grass if possible, Jenkinson advised. 

He also advised to avoid burning yard debris. FireWise members are available to call and haul slash to the nearby Aurora Gravel Pit. 

The cities of Kenai and Soldotna allow slash and other wood materials at their garbage sites. 

CES owns a total of six fire engines (as well as other emergency vehicles). If a full-scale wildfire occurred, all properties cannot be saved. 

“There’s only so much equipment and personnel,” Jenkinson said. 

However, some new, readily equipped vehicles were obtained for CES stations on the Peninsula. About five years ago, the Community Wildfire Protection Plan put together by emergency responders recommended “wild land” fire-fighting apparatuses. 

“And so, with a grant from the state and budget funds, we’re receiving two engines designed for wild land,” Mokracek said. 

CES also purchased an additional engine for the Kasilof Fire Station, CES Station Six. 

That still is not enough to save every home from a large fire. The best defense is preparation, Jenkinson said.  

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com. 

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