In the summer of 2008, Linda Twenhofel, a local FireWise team member, started offering free money to Kenai Peninsula Borough residents.
There wasn't a catch, per se. People just had to use the money for a specific purpose: to protect their homes against forest fires.
The money was part of a cost-sharing program facilitated by the Kenai Peninsula Borough FireWise program. About $300,000 was available Peninsula wide in 2008, according to Kenai Peninsula FireWise team leader Meg Cicciarella. The program aims to help homeowners avoid getting a red rock.
During a major event, firefighters place a red rock on land that has so many fire risks that the property might not be worth trying to save.
"People need to be proactive and take responsibility for their own homes," Cicciarella said.
Common fire risks include dead vegetation, tree limbs near the ground, dry grass, flammable roofing and firewood stacked within 30 feet of a home.
The grants facilitated by FireWise allow people to eliminate those hazards.
In Cooper Landing, residents took the FireWise concept one step farther than individual mitigation. The community also organized the Quartz Creek Fuel Reduction Project.
On Wednesday, Cicciarella and Alaska Division of Forestry area forester Hans Rinke toured the project, which was completed in the fall of 2009. Now that fire season is picking back up, residents could soon realize the program's true benefits.
Walking through the 14 acres of woods that have been treated highlights the value of fire mitigation efforts. The trees next to the treated area are so densely packed that a cabin about a dozen feet in from the road is hardly visible. So much fuel would make a fire unpredictable and difficult to contain, Rinke said.
Forestry cut trees in the area to open up the forest's canopy to lessen a fire's chances of jumping from treetop to treetop.
"We want to get it on the ground," Rinke said. "When a fire's on the ground, it's easier for us to control it."
Forestry also cut low-hanging limbs off trees, which could prevent an ember that lands on dry, wispy grass from climbing a tree and igniting a massive torch.
Opening the woods up also gives firefighters a hose lane, which is critical when fighting a fire, according to Rinke.
"It puts us that much further ahead," Rinke said. "It's a jumpstart. It's going to make things much more efficient and give firefighters access."
While the Quartz Creek project took about a month's worth of work with a handful of brawny individuals cutting through a couple of acres of forest per day, individual homeowners can also learn a lot from the work, according to Rinke.
"If homeowners take these principles, they will be able to better protect themselves." Rinke said.
Theresa Norris, a Cooper Landing resident, said the FireWise Program opened her eyes.
"I was aware of fire danger, but I just didn't give it much thought," Norris said. "They kind of put it in focus."
Through the help of the grants, Norris was able to pay for tree clearing and other efforts in her own back yard that now make her feel more protected from fire.
"I know how vulnerable this community would be if there was a fire. Fire would come up from the road and it would go uphill and we're kind of uphill," Norris said of her home. "I think this was a good program."
Peninsula property owners interested in following Norris's lead can contact the borough's FireWise program at 260-4262. Free mitigation is still available.
"Homeowners can request a FireWise home visit and then we will work with them to develop a prescription, which crews will then carry out in subsequent visits," Cicciarella said.
Rinke said fire mitigation is easier than people think.
"It's in the details," he said. Details like taking that straw broom off the porch, cleaning out the gutters and watering the grass.
"A lot of people think it takes a lot of work. I equate it to mowing the lawn," Rinke said. "Don't think you're going to mow it all in a week and then you'll be good. It's all about proper maintenance."
Andrew Waite can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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