Wildfire forecast up to Mother Nature

Crews brace for spring fire season across peninsula

Posted: Monday, March 05, 2001

Kenai Peninsula firefighters are bracing for the worst, given the forecast for a warmer-than-average spring and more than a million acres of beetle-killed spruce trees on the Kenai Peninsula.

Ric Plate, fire management officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry in Soldotna, said spring weather is the greatest factor in determining local fire danger. A cool, rainy spring would alleviate much of the danger.

"If it's a warm spring, we could see more fire activity once the snow goes away," Plate said.

And from May through July, warmer-than-average temperatures are in the forecast from the Kenai Peninsula through mainland Alaska, according to the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service. The center expects average precipitation.

"It's the warmer-than-normal forecast that raised our eyebrows," said Bob Hopkins, meteorologist in charge for the weather service in Anchorage. "Usually, above-normal temperatures mean lower humidity, and lower humidity is what you really look for for fires. You dry things out quicker."

Plate said the fire season generally begins after the snow melts, then tapers off as the new vegetation greens up. With below-normal precipitation this winter, he said, the fire season could come early.

"As far as the snow and moisture we've gotten, we haven't had much," he said.

The abundance of ice early in the winter may have sealed the ground, he said, so that the moisture that has fallen may run off rather than soak into the ground. That could leave even less moisture for grass, shrubs and trees.

"If it clears up and warms in March, we could be into fire season in April," he said.

If the weather continues dry, he said, that could delay green-up and prolong the fire season.

Meanwhile, mappers with the Spruce Bark Beetle Project of the Kenai Peninsula Borough say 1.4 million acres of the borough's forests have been affected by the spruce bark beetle epidemic, Bob Bright, borough planning director, told the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. The borough includes about 10 million acres of land, including glaciers, ice fields and alpine areas.

Paul Gray, who has been researching the beetle epidemic for his television show "Exploring Alaska," said foresters tell him the conditions for a catastrophic fire occur much more often in a dead forest than a live one. In his program about the beetles, Wade Wahrenbrock, a fire behavior analyst for Forestry in Soldotna, said the infestation has killed nearly all of the spruce forest from Kasilof to Homer.

"We do take this problem extremely seriously," Bright said. "The potential for a catastrophic fire is there."

Michael Fastabend, the borough's spruce bark beetle coordinator, said the Division of Forestry fire season begins May 1. To ensure firefighters are in place for early fires, the beetle project has budgeted $45,000 this year to hire the Tazlina Hot Shots fire crew for about five weeks and to hire the Division of Forestry's Kenai fire crew early. Both crews should arrive about April 1, he said. The borough will put them to work clearing hazardous trees from around schools, campgrounds and other public facilities. If there is a wildfire, they will be ready.

Plate said Forestry will station about the same number of firefighters on the peninsula this summer as last summer.

"This summer, we'll have two Division of Forestry engine crews in Homer and two engine crews and a helitac crew in Soldotna," he said. "We'll have two tankers in Soldotna and a couple of pickups with small tanks. We'll also have an air tanker in Palmer for quick response here."

However, the peninsula may get a boost from the revamping of an air tanker site in Palmer. That freed enough equipment for Forestry to open a base in Kenai to refill tanker planes with the fire-retardant chemicals.

Plate said Forestry is negotiating for space at the Kenai Municipal Airport to store pumps and a trailer filled with fire retardant concentrate. Then, if the wind is too strong to refill tanker planes in Palmer, the planes could refill in Kenai. Forestry also will set up an air tanker fill site at the Homer airport.

Meanwhile, foresters are trying to develop better models of fire behavior in beetle-killed spruce forest. Wahrenbrock said he hopes to conduct test burns this summer to help.

Forestry presently rates fire danger using a Canadian system, he said, and the Canadian scale that comes closest to matching conditions here was developed for balsam fir killed by spruce bud worms.

"We've been using that, but we recognize that our beetle-killed spruce is a lot different from balsam fir," he said.

In addition, Forestry plugs information about fuel and conditions into a computerized model to predict how forest fires will behave and grow. Plate said there are computerized maps of beetle-killed forests on the Kenai Peninsula, but the fire-behavior model was developed for green forests.

Wahrenbrock said the test burns will help him to adapt the Canadian rating system and the computer model to beetle-killed spruce. He said he hopes to do four burns this summer -- two in standing beetle-killed trees, and two where half the dead trees have fallen.

He still is looking for sites. He said he hopes to find 20- to 30-acre stands of beetle-killed spruce accessible by gravel roads in areas where the fires will be easy to contain.

"There's quite a bit of work to do prior to ignition," Wahrenbrock said. "We need to quantify the amount of fuel on the forest floor and in the canopy. We'll coordinate that with flame lengths and rates of spread."

He also will set samples of industrial paints designed to degrade at different temperatures. After the fire, he will be able to tell how hot the fire burned by checking which paint samples survived.

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