Bears blamed for island wildfire

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Smokey the Bear may have evil cousins on Afognak Island.

Bears removed burning debris from an incinerator near a remote logging camp Monday night and ignited a four-acre fire on the island off the northeast end of Kodiak Island.

The acreage, logged about 12 years ago, mostly contained 8- to 10-foot saplings. A crew from the Afognak Native Corp. logging camp extinguished the fire.

Timber operations manager Jim Loaris said a pair of 1,000-pound Kodiak brown bears has figured out how to open doors on the metal incinerator and retrieve food scraps -- even when they're on fire.

''They fish out what they want and consume it on site,'' Loaris said.

The incinerator is about a mile and a half from the logging camp, which has 28 homes and 60 people -- almost the only human presence on the 719-square-mile island. The camp's permit requires burning of household waste.

''We incinerate every day so the bears don't come into camp,'' Loaris said.

Loggers watched one bear open the latch, overcoming a safety device with half-inch steel designed to keep bears out.

''There's a two-step process to open the door,'' Loaris said.

The other bear takes a more primitive approach. Loaris said the second bear simply uses brute strength to bend the hinges on the door.

Loaris said he's amazed the bears have continued their fiery forage.

''They evidently have enough insulation that they can reach in and not suffer any effects,'' Loaris said.

Loggers keep the ground clear around the incinerator. But high winds Monday blew debris far enough to ignite dry, dead grass.

A logger spotted the fire and summoned crew members with a fire truck. The bears had taken off.

''Unfortunately, they didn't put the fire out,'' Loaris said, but as soon as the blaze was extinguished, they came back.

Forest fires are rare on rainy Afognak Island. Loaris said once the island gets green after winter, and dry grass is no longer available, ''This is pretty much an asbestos forest.''

Loggers are trying to figure out other means to keep the bears out of the metal incinerator.

Meanwhile, Loaris said, his opinion of Smokey the Bear has diminished.

''Obviously, he is not doing all he could do to prevent fires,'' Loaris said.

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