Borough to start protecting wildfire evacuation routes

Posted: Monday, March 05, 2001

Contractors could begin this month to clear beetle-killed trees along hundreds of miles of Kenai Peninsula Borough-maintained roads that could fall in a fire, blocking fire trucks or fleeing residents.

Bob Bright, borough planning director, recalled a photo to paint the purpose during Tuesday's meeting of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.

"It's a photo of an individual fleeing the Hutler Ridge fire taking his most important possessions -- his pickup truck, his boat and his dog -- and trying to get out of the fire as quickly as he can," Bright said. "It's a concern to us, people trying to get out of these fires when they happen, and that's why we're moving so quickly on the right-of-way clearing."

The initial focus will be the southern peninsula, said Michael Fastabend, the borough's spruce bark beetle coordinator. The borough estimates there may be dead spruce trees in the rights of way of 163 miles of borough-maintained roads from Homer to Kasilof.

Borough crews are trying to assess three miles of road per week, he said. They already have covered the area from Homer's East End Road nearly to Anchor Point.

"We've started on the south peninsula, but there's no reason it needs to be confined to the south peninsula," Fastabend said. "We're going to start doing assessments in Nikiski and moving south, also. We'll be looking at rights-of-way clearing in all central peninsula communities."

The borough will focus on the Sterling Highway corridor where most peninsula residents live, he said. It will look carefully at communities such as Nikiski, Funny River, Cooper Landing, Hope and Moose Pass that have only one highway for access and egress.

Fastabend said the borough has been working with local fire chiefs to identify the top priorities for clearing rights of way. It also has obtained satellite photos to identify areas of beetle-killed spruce and logging and matched those to computerized maps of land ownership to identify high-risk areas.

Bright said the borough already has assembled a list of contractors who can survey rights of way, cut dead trees or dispose of slash, but it is still interested in adding to the list.

Once managers identify a right of way to be cleared, the borough will request bids from contractors on the list and award the work to the lowest qualified bidder.

The borough will ask the state to clear the rights of way along state-maintained roads, he said.

The borough's Spruce Bark Beetle Program phase II budget, funded with a $7.5 million federal grant, includes $1.1 million over three years for clearing borough rights of way and $1.25 million to clear hazardous trees from Homer Electric Association and Chugach Electric Association power line rights of way.

It includes $1.1 million over three years to help and encourage peninsula residents to clear brush and trees from around their homes, dispose of slash, ensure community water supplies and access routes, and otherwise make homes easier to defend against wildfires. It includes $815,000 over three years for technical assistance, and $110,000 over three years for public education and incident training. It includes $225,000 over three years to put forest firefighters on the peninsula earlier in the fire season.

It includes $750,000 for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council to reforest beetle-killed areas on federal and Native corporation lands, and $1 million over three years for a borough reforestation program.

A technical committee will help design the borough reforestation plan, Fastabend said. However, the borough already has ordered 50,000 spruce seedlings to plant this summer.

"We're looking at planting high-value urban or public places or distributing seedlings to private citizens," he said.

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