Forestry beefs up fire crews

Posted: Sunday, May 28, 2000

State and local fire agencies have suspended burn permits until further notice. For more information call 263-4124

Dry windy weather and the crowd of visitors expected for Memorial Day weekend have led the Division of Forestry to beef up its firefighting forces on the Kenai Peninsula.

John LeClair, the state's fire management officer in Soldotna, rated the local danger of wildfires as "high" on Friday, and said it could become "extreme" if warm windy conditions prevail through the weekend.

"We could get gusts to 20 miles per hour," he said Friday. "That's where we really want to pull the plug."

The division did just that Saturday morning, issuing a press release that said, "Due to forecasted erratic wind conditions and low relative humidities ... Forestry has suspended all burning permits until further notice. ... All local fire service agencies are also suspending burning at this time."

High to extreme fire danger on Kodiak Island contributed to the decision to shift firefighting resources from areas where present weather is wetter, he said. A Hot Shot crew -- eight U.S. Forest Service smoke-jumpers equipped to parachute into remote areas -- arrived Friday at the Kenai airport. While waiting to be deployed in case of a fire, the crew assisted Kenai firefighters in clearing beetle-killed trees from the Inlet View Subdivision in Kenai.

A spotter plane, a helicopter with five firefighters and an air tanker equipped to drop fire retardant came to Homer. If the fire danger becomes extreme, LeClair said, the spotter plane may fly daily during the hottest part of the afternoon when small fires become most visible. If there is a fire, it can serve as an orbiting air traffic controller.

The Division of Forestry already had a helicopter with three firefighters in Soldotna. Its regular summer crew includes two fire trucks with two firefighters apiece in Soldotna and two trucks with similar crews in Homer. In addition, Forestry has hired the Kenai wildlands fire crew to clear beetle-killed trees around local utilities.

The Kenai crew also is equipped to fight fires, LeClair said. It helped fight a small forest fire in Kasilof last week.

In case of a large fire, Forestry still could call for reinforcements.

The state will announce the lifting of the open burning ban over local radio stations, LeClair said. Even while open burning is allowed, he said, state burn permits are required, and permit holders must notify Forestry before lighting fires. They must clear around proposed burns and have adequate water and tools to control the fire.

It is illegal to burn if the wind exceeds 10 miles per hour. If that happens, permit holders must extinguish their fires. As always, Forestry officials warned, any person who lights a fire that results in wildland fire suppression may be responsible for payment of those suppression costs, as well as possible criminal penalties for violation of the open-burning regulations.

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