Defensible space is homeowners' best bet

Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Fire managers say clearing brush, trees and high grass from around homes is still the best defense from wildfires.

"In Homer, the Hutler Road fire, when that passed, it was black -- except for every home was saved with a green spot around it," said John LeClair, fire management officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry. "They had done their defensible space."

In a fast-moving fire, protecting homes becomes a matter of triage, said Wade Wahrenbrock, a fire behavior specialist for the Division of Forestry. Firefighters must decide which homes they can defend and which homes they might be endangering their lives to defend. Clearing can make the difference.

Preplanned fire breaks may not be the best way to spend mitigation money, LeClair said, since it is difficult to know where a fire will start or which way it will spread. The main application for fire breaks may be to connect natural barriers once a fire is under way.

He advised paying attention to the FireWise program, aimed at teaching homeowners how to clear defensible space and fire-proof their homes.

"Get your communities out and look at what you can do around your homes. I see the borough and the state and the federal government working on a daily basis to look at public lands and what we can do. At the private lands, we need to start tackling that," LeClair said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough just accepted a $2 million federal grant to address hazards arising from the spruce bark beetle infestation. The borough assembly authorized the mayor to spend $300,000 of that to provide a chipper to homeowners to dispose of slash from beetle-killed trees. It authorized spending $300,000 through the Cook Inlet Tribal Council for removal of hazardous trees and reforestation, and $200,000 to evaluate forest fire hazards and make efficient use of fire-fighting resources.

The assembly appointed a committee to develop plans for spending the remaining $1.2 million. Projects could include removing hazardous trees around public buildings; removing trees that pose fire hazards to peninsula communities; protecting utilities and infrastructure; and planning forest fire escape routes. The committee must report back by June 6.

State and borough officials already have been working on maps of land contours and vegetative cover for a computer model to predict the spread and behavior of Kenai Peninsula fires. Given an ignition site, wind and weather conditions, the model should be able to predict how fast a fire will spread, and in what direction, Wahrenbrock said. Once the necessary information is loaded, he plans to check it against the known behavior of the 1996 Crooked Creek fire.

The model could be useful in deciding if and when to evacuate threatened communities or in deciding where to focus firefighting efforts. LeClair said the model also could help resource agencies decide when and where to conduct controlled burns.

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