Assembly to consider resolution seeking earlier start to state wildfire season

No time to burn in fire season

Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2006

When the Tracey Avenue wildfire began scorching acreage and threatening homes northeast of Homer on April 29 of last year, there were no air tankers available to help drown its rapid advance.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is expected to consider a resolution at its Tuesday meeting calling on the Alaska Legislature to change the date of the official beginning of the annual fire season from May 1 to April 1.

“Over the past several years the southern Kenai Peninsula has suffered many wildfires prior to the official fire season as established in state statute,” assembly member Milli Martin, of Homer, said in a Jan. 5 memo to her assembly colleagues.

“The Tracey Avenue Fire, which consumed about 5,400 acres and began before May 1, 2005, certainly drove home the critical need for the Legislature to revise the official season start date, including likewise changing the training season,” she said.

Martin said the Tracey Avenue Fire cost millions, and that one of the reason it cost so much and the fire spread so far was because tanker planes were not available in the state.

“They are not called in until after the statutory fire season date of May 1,” she said.

By the time they did arrive, they were needed in Delta and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley as well, she said.

“The peninsula is not unique in these needs; the need is statewide,” she said.

According to Homer Fire Chief Robert Painter, there were 14 wildfires on the lower peninsula prior to May 1 in 2003, five in 2004, including a 100-acre blaze north of Anchor Point, and eight such fires in 2005, including the Tracey Avenue Fire.

Once tankers arrive and are contracted they have to “qualify,” as do seasonally hired emergency firefighters. That leads to delays in getting to fires already under way.

Martin said it is clearly evident that a state the size of Alaska needs more fire suppression resources earlier in the season, “so that the first two or three weeks is not spent in requalification and recredentialing personnel.”

She said Painter told her he’d have all of his personnel requalified by the end of March at the latest.

With fire seasons apparently starting earlier than in the past, and with the current very light snow cover on the lower peninsula, Martin wants the fire season start date set a month earlier, meaning April 1.

“Recognized in this is the additional cost to the state for the staff, training and equipment required,” she acknowledged. “However, the trend is obvious, and in the long term the savings both in firefighting costs and potential loss of life and property will be well worth it.”

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