State needs solution before it gets burned

Posted: Friday, May 06, 2005

A family plans a camp-out weekend. As soon as night falls, they start a fire. The wind picks up.

A property owner decides it's time to get rid of that extra brush around his home. He starts a fire to create a break.

A group of friends get together for a barbecue. The coals aren't heating up as fast as they like, so they add more fuel to the fire.

These are seemingly innocent events that take place when the Alaska weather begins to agree with the calendar. But there's one common denominator that can turn them into a nightmare in a hurry: no rain.

The drier the Kenai Peninsula is, the more risk there is disaster. The scary part is it doesn't even have to begin with people.

As the weather gets warmer, though, more of us will make our way into the the peninsula's wilderness. It's inevitable, and it's doubtful we'll make it through summer without another incident — big or small.

The fact is, these ingredients make a bad recipe.

There are things we can do to help curb the danger and damage. You can find advice just about anywhere, like these tips for building campfires:

Dig a small pit away from overhanging branches.

Circle the pit with rocks or be sure it already has a metal fire ring.

Clear a 5-foot area around the pit down to the soil.

Keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby.

Stack extra wood upwind, away from the fire.

Never leave a campfire unattended, not even for a minute.

When it comes to our homes, the Firewise program offers these tips (and more) to make surroundings safer:

Keep a clearing of at least 30 feet around your house for fire-fighting equipment.

Space the trees you plant carefully.

Remove fuels that link the grasses and the tree tops, such as bushes and stacked items.

Create "fuelbreaks" — driveways, gravel walkways or lawns.

Maintain your irrigation system regularly.

Prune tree limbs so the lowest is between 6 to 10 feet from the ground.

Remove leaf clutter from your roof and yard.

Mow regularly.

Remove dead or overhanging branches.

Store firewood away from your house.

The thing is, tips are great reminders, but they aren't enough.

Last Friday's fire in Homer was ignited by a fallen power line. One spark on the ground resulted in more than 5,000 scorched acres. Luckily no one was hurt.

Mother Nature is good at rejuvenating herself, but when it's life-threatening, it becomes a whole new story.

Perhaps the much-needed, flame-retardant tanker aircraft would have been available sooner if the Homer fire jumped the Anchor River, but the truth is, the plane wasn't there when it was needed. A plane wasn't even ready for the fire season yet.

To make matters worse, when a plane was sent, it was diverted to the Interior, where another wildfire was under way.

Talk about spreading resources too thin!

Miraculously, by the time the plane made it to the peninsula, the fire was still keeping its distance from the populated areas. Even though the plane had to come to Kenai to load, when it did reach its destination, it was mostly responsible for allowing firefighters to contain the blaze by the middle of this week.

With climate changes pointing toward warmer trends, it doesn't make sense that the state decided to pull a mobile retardant station out of its location at the Homer Airport — all in an effort to save money and provide broader coverage to the entire state with limited resources.

At some point we have to draw a line — this time in the ashes. We can follow all the tips in the world, but there are some things over which we have no control. When do we say we've had enough cuts in the wrong places?

This time, the delayed solution worked. The next time we might not be so lucky. If someone dies, will we say we've had enough? Will we find a way to get the results without taking the long way to reach the end?

It's time for the state to do preventative maintenance — it's called planning ahead. The Band-Aid solution is getting old, and the state is leaving it's inhabitants feeling a bit burned.

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