Fire season heats up; officials urge caution

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

Kenai Peninsula firefighters thought they had their first brush fire of the year last week.

Central Emergency Services responded to a call with an engine and three tankers only to discover the smoke was from the controlled burn of a slash pile.

Despite light snowfall over the weekend, snowmelt has exposed significant patches of deadwood, brush, grass and other "ground fuels," which dry quickly in the sun and wind.

"We're starting to see a lot of ground being exposed," said CES Fire Marshal Gary Hale. "Ground fuels are starting to become very dry right now."

Although brush fires may not seem likely early in the season with snow still on the ground wildfires become a threat as soon as ground fuels are exposed and begin to dry.

Wildfires occurred early on the Kenai Peninsula last year.

Four fires burned nearly 130 acres on the southern peninsula March 12 and 13 last year.

The wildfire threat is significant on the peninsula due to accumulations of ground fuels, especially spruce bark beetle-killed trees.

"The potential is extreme," Hale said. "We've been very fortunate over the past couple years."

When grasslands or forests do catch fire on the peninsula, people usually are to blame.

"Well over 90 percent of wildfires are caused by human activity," Hale said.

Early season fires often are started by slash-pile fires, unattended burn barrels or controlled land burns that get out of control and ignite the dry grass.

"Pre-green up, people need to be aware of how easily fires can start," said Sharon Roesch of the Alaska Division of Forestry. "Until we get green up, the brown grass is a serious hazard."

The surest way to keep a controlled burn under control is to keep it away from flammable material that's not intended to be ignited.

"Fire is not like a flood, it has to have something to keep going," Roesch said.

To contain an outdoor burn, clear a perimeter of bare dirt to establish a fire break. Before igniting the fire, have water and extra help on hand to extinguish any problems.

Keep the fire to a short duration and make sure all combustibles burn completely.

The same principles apply to campfires.

A cold day or a little snow on the ground will not impede the ignition or spread of fire. Last year's early fires occurred during a cold snap.

"All our early season fires start in areas with snow left on the ground," Roesch said. "The grass and the spruce trees don't need warm weather (to ignite), they just need dry weather."

To insulate houses from wildfire, homeowners are advised to clear the 100- to 200-foot "ignition zone" around their house of anything combustible to create a "Lean, Clean and Green" zone.

"Homes that don't ignite, don't burn," Roesch said.

Anyone who lights a fire that spreads out of control may be liable for damages and costs to extinguish the fire. Criminal penalties also may apply, according to the Division of Forestry.

Burning permits are required May 1.

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