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Fire danger high; fire crews on alert

Posted: May 29, 2013 - 9:38pm
Photo provided by Central Emergency Services Central Emergency Services personnel respond to a structure fire near Mile 79 of the Sterling Highway Tuesday night.
Photo provided by Central Emergency Services Central Emergency Services personnel respond to a structure fire near Mile 79 of the Sterling Highway Tuesday night.

An unattended and unpermitted burn pile Monday spread into the surrounding tinder dry grass and brush, triggering a response from the Nikiski Fire Department, state fire crews and one helicopter.

“At this time (the fire danger) is high to very high,” said Howie Kent, fire manager for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. Overall, the danger is normal for this time of year, he said.

The Division of Forestry suspended all open burning throughout the Kenai Peninsula as of May 27, but has not yet restricted campfires. However, if Alaskans must have campfires a well-planned and cautious approach is urged. Also included in the ban are burn barrels of any type.

State and local fire crews are on high alert and expect to remain so through mid June, the normal range of the high fire season on Western Kenai Peninsula. On a preparedness scale of 1 to 5 crews sit at level 4. Any fire call will automatically launch two engines, a crew of eight and one helicopter to the scene, Kent said. If the fire danger worsens to extreme, preparedness level 5, a 20 man hotshot crew would likely be stationed in the area.

At risk is a larger multi-day fire. It’s paramount that fires be caught and fought within the first hour of ignition or crews could take days to extinguish the flames.

“It’s crucial to keep fires small,” Kent said.

A second “wildland” fire burned Tuesday night shortly after 10 p.m. when a structure fire in Sterling, near mile 79 of the Sterling Highway, spread and burned a quarter acre of grass and brush, the type of fuel currently ripe for burning. Soon trees will begin to dry out and become combustable and spread fire as well, Kent said.

What caused the house fire remains unknown, said Soldotna Fire Marshall Gary Hale. The house had no working utilities and was uninhabited. Hale said that according to a witness, who checked on the property about four hours before his firefighters were called to the scene, the home was fine.

Hale said he’s not seen any other fires since the burn ban began. “People are cognizant of no open burning,” he said.

According to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, conditions exist for “extreme fire behavior” as the fire danger Wednesday rose to “very high” across much of the western Kenai Peninsula. The rating was up from Monday, which saw a rating of “high.”

Monday’s was the first brush fire of the year for the Nikiski Fire Department, according to Capt. Brian Ledahl. The fire was not a big one according to Ledahl, who said about a quarter acre burned on Ainsworth Road. The fire drew 10 Nikiski firefighters, three tanker trucks and an state fire engine with its crew.

For those who continue to burn campfires during the elevated danger period Ledahl advises that they use a proper campfire ring, always have a garden hose on hand and don’t leave fires unattended. If a fire jumps a ring, call the fire department immediately. Better to be safe than sorry, the best case is that they don’t need us, he said.

Alaskans love their campfires and it would take an order from the governor to ban them during the fire season, Kent said. At least two campfires have jumped their rings and burned small sub-acre areas before being extinguished, he said.

That National Weather Service is forecasting a slight chance of showers for the weekend, but the outlook for the remainder of this week is continued sunny and dry conditions. Winds are expected to pick up Today and Friday.

“(The wind) is the wildcard in the whole thing,” Kent said. “Watch the wind.”

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