Dry weather makes wildfire danger high

Clarion file photo Smoke and steam obscure firefighters as they work to extinguish a fire that consumed two homes Thursday Dec. 20, 2014 in Soldotna, Alaska.

A drier than average April has elevated the potential for wildfires and Department of Forestry services across the state remain at the ready.


Firefighters from Kachemak Emergency Services contained a half-acre grass fire off of East End Road 13 miles outside of Homer Wednesday. The fire was one of three minor wildfire incidents recorded by the Department of Forestry, bringing the total to 15 wildland fires on the Kenai Peninsula this year.

Darren Finley, fire prevention officer from the Department of Forestry Soldotna region, said a call on the grass fire outside of Homer came in around 1:50 p.m. Wednesday. The incident occurred close to the KES Department and crews were able to reach the fire on all-terrain vehicles to extinguish the smoldering fire, he said. The fire was put out after an hour but crews remained on scene monitoring the area for several hours. The cause of the fire is under investigation, he said.

Outside the Forestry Service office in Soldotna, the fire danger sign is set to high. Finley said the wildfire condition has been moderate to high for most of April. With a below average snowpack all across the Kenai Peninsula, spring has arrived well ahead of last year’s pace, when snow lasted into June.

“Due to the weather the grass has been exposed longer and had time to dry out,” Finley said. “Dry conditions are the most volatile fuel. Grass fires spread fast and can produces flames up to 10 feet high.”

Forestry crews also responded to a small campfire on Bishop’s Beach and issued a warning to an Anchor Point resident for having an illegal burn in his yard without a burn permit. Maggie Hess, information officer for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, said illegal burns are the most common in the Kenai Peninsula, partially because people are unaware of safe burning guidelines.

“Most people are doing spring cleanup in their yard and are just happy to be outside,” Hess said. “We are asking people to be aware because you can find yourself with a problematic situation very quickly.”

Gov. Sean Parnell has issued a proclamation designating May 3-9 as Alaska Wildland Fire Prevention and Preparedness Week.

The proclamation, which is sent out every May, is intended to encourage the public to prevent, prepare and be aware of wildfires in hope of reducing the threat, Hess said.

Burn restrictions went into effect April 1 with burn permits required until August 31. Alaska law mandates that anyone burning brush cannot leave the fire unattended and must have water on hand in the event it spreads. As a preventative measure, keep the ground around the fire clear and don’t start a fire in windy conditions, Finley said.

A controlled fire is anything up to 10 feet in diameter and less than 4 feet high while a cooking campfire should be kept 3-by-3 feet, he said. Because most all wildfires are caused by human activity, it is important to practice safe burning practices, he said.

Finley said anyone unsure of burning conditions could call the Forestry Service for a free site inspection. An unsafe fire platform or burning under a suspension could result in a citation, but most times people are cooperative and are just given a warning, he said.

“We are not out to strong arm anyone,” he said. “We just want to help inform people and remind them a permit has to be in place.”

Finley said trying to predict the fire outlook for the summer is like trying to predict the weather. Statewide has already seen two red-flag warnings in April, a rare occurrence in Alaska, he said.

The helicopter used to fight wildfires arrived at the Soldotna Forestry office Tuesday. Finley said the helicopter doesn’t usually arrive until late May, but having it parked in front of the office on the Sterling Highway is a welcome sight.

“It is a big relief for us, the weather got here before the helicopter,” he said. “We are happy to have that tool in our back pocket.”

While the dry conditions have set the fire danger to high, Finley said any rain could lower the danger. In the meantime, forestry firefighters are ready at full-force with a crew of 15 at the Soldotna office, he said.

Residents can check the status of the burn suspension by calling 260-4269 or visiting www.forestry.alaska.gov.


Reach Dan Balmer at daniel.balmer@peninsulaclarion.com