Federal funds could reduce wildfire risk

Posted: Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Fifteen Kenai Peninsula communities appear on a preliminary nationwide list of those that could benefit from a federal program to remove hazardous fuels to reduce the risk from wildfires.

Alaska projects funded through the $240 million program could include prescribed burning, clearing or chipping of hazardous trees, said Larry Vanderlinden, fire management coordinator for the Alaska region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Peninsula communities that made the preliminary list are Anchor Point, Clam Gulch, Cooper Landing, Fox River, Fritz Creek, Funny River, Happy Valley, Homer, Kalifornsky, Kasilof, Kenai, Nikiski, Ninilchik, Salamatof and Soldotna.

It has not been determined how the new program will interact with separate initiatives such as the Kenai Peninsula Borough's response to the spruce bark beetle infestation, Vanderlinden said.

"That will take some coordination. We need to find out what is going on in the borough now," he said.

The new federal program arose after President Bill Clinton directed the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior in August to prepare a report on how best to respond to last summer's disastrous wildfires in New Mexico and the Rocky Mountain states and to ensure there are adequate resources to respond to future wildfires.

According to the Jan. 4 Federal Register, their report calls for federal agencies to increase investments in projects to reduce fire risk and to work with communities to reduce fire hazards in populated areas.

Federal land management agencies are working with states, tribes and local governments to plan fuel-reduction projects in the urban-wildlands interface -- the area where human development borders or mixes with wildlands. Vanderlinden said Congress has appropriated $240 million to fund the work -- half to the Interior Department and half to the Agriculture Department.

The Federal Register said projects will be focused on federally owned lands at the urban-wildlands interface but may extend to nearby lands with other owners. Federal lands on the Kenai Peninsula include the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Kenai Fjords National Park and parts of Chugach National Forest.

Agencies in individual states cooperated to produce preliminary lists of communities that lie near federal lands and face a high risk from wildfires, Vanderlinden said. Now, the states are developing priorities.

"After those are developed, there will be discussions at the National Interagency Fire Center to prioritize projects for funding and determine the allocations to the states," he said.

The Alaska list was written by representatives of the federal Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs, state agencies and tribal groups including Tanana Chiefs Conference and Chugachmiut.

It includes the 15 peninsula communities and 23 others from Anchorage to Fairbanks and Interior Alaska. The preliminary list also includes communities from 36 other states. The Interior and Agriculture departments plan to update it as states and tribes provide more information. Communities could be added or removed. The secretaries must publish an updated list by May 1.

According to the Alaska Division of Forestry, people cause an average of more than 400 wildfires in Alaska each year, mostly in May and early June before new growth replaces dead grass and plants from the previous year. Common causes include campfires, the burning of brush and trash piles, discarded cigarettes and children playing with fire.

Fires started by people can be more destructive than those caused by lightning, because they often occur in populated areas. The 1996 Millers Reach fire destroyed 300 homes and burned more than 37,000 acres.

Clearing brush, trees, wood piles and other burnable materials from around homes can make them easier to defend against wildfires.

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