Holiday weekend ushers in summer disaster-free

Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 2002

For a holiday traditionally known for its cook-out revelers and road warriors, this year's Memorial Day weekend proved busy but without serious incident for Kenai Peninsula law enforcement officers.

While there were still unattended campfires to put out, full campgrounds to monitor and busy roads to patrol, for the most part everyone played with caution and safety in mind.

"People, at least the ones who understand what (the weekend) is about are more somber. It makes people have more of a responsible attitude," said Kenai Police Lt. Chuck Kopp.

The tame weekend could be attributed to people observing the origins of the holiday, or it could also be that Memorial Day celebrations tend to be more family oriented. Whereas other holiday weekends like the Fourth of July involve more parties, Bill Kent, of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said, Memorial Day doesn't generally result in as many problems for his officers.

"We tend to have a little more alcohol-related activities over the Fourth of July weekend -- that, and fireworks, which are illegal on the peninsula," said Kent, the supervisory park ranger for the refuge.

All things considered campgrounds around the peninsula were packed to capacity over the holiday weekend. Some were even filling up as early as Wednesday night. Even those campgrounds along the Kenai River and in Sterling that usually have only sparse use over Memorial Day weekend saw an above average number of visitors this year.

"We had campgrounds busy or full that haven't been busy on Memorial Day in years," said Chris Degernes, Kenai area park superintendent for the state of Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

Busy campgrounds can be breeding grounds for fires, but this Memorial Day tied with 1996 as the holiday with the least amount of fires. This small statistic was due in part to the response to a high potential for fires brought on by low humidity, wind and no precipitation, by the staff from Forestry, KNWR and Parks and Outdoor Recreation who spent the weekend patrolling the full campgrounds. The state Division of Forestry alone located and extinguished 27 unattended campfires over the weekend.

The Division of Forestry responded to the only fire reported over the weekend -- a string of little fires along the Sterling Highway across from its office -- and within 10 minutes the burns were put out.

Parks and Outdoor Recreation had extra staff assigned to the traditionally busy areas from Kasilof to Anchor Point, said Degernes, and the first weekend of freshwater king fishing in those areas didn't disappoint, at least when it came to drawing in the diehard anglers.

While fishing may have been spotty throughout the weekend, the potential for the next record king combined with some of the best clamming tides of the summer made for what Degernes called one of the busiest Memorial Day weekends the department has had in years.

Another element added to an already busy weekend was the fact that nine of the state campgrounds in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley area are currently closed due to impending budget cuts. Degernes attributed a certain amount of the influx of visitors to displaced campers from north of Anchorage.

Still, everyone out on the roads searching for campgrounds didn't make this Memorial Day weekend abnormally busy or stressful for area police officers or state troopers. Kenai police Lt. Kopp reported a rather inactive weekend with no more than the average number of traffic-related calls.

"We had a standard level of activities that always keep us busy -- like domestic violence, theft and assault. We usually don't see a big increase of activity requiring our presence on Memorial Day weekend," Kopp said.

Alaska State Troopers also made a few routine arrests for drivers operating a vehicle while intoxicated throughout the state, but as part of their summer long "Click it or Ticket" campaign officers wrote 520 seat belt citations over the four-day weekend. The peninsula accounted for 206 of those violations.

"Motorists may as well get in the habit of buckling up each and every time they get behind the wheel," said Col. Randy Crawford, director of the Alaska State Troopers. "Alaska is no longer going to be a place where you can drive without a seat belt. Seat belts save lives, and we're out to make sure everyone is wearing one."

Despite motorists forgetting to wear their seat belts, the weekend was overall accident free across the board, and that bodes well for the remainder of the summer.

"It was a great weekend for both park visitors and staff. It was accident free and every one had a great time, and I guess that is how we measure the success. If Memorial Day weekend is a success than we are set for the year," Degernes said.

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