Burn permit decisions not made lightly

Posted: Sunday, June 11, 2000

To burn or not to burn -- that is the question John LeClair faces everyday in his office at the Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry.

While burn permits are issued throughout the Kenai Peninsula on a regular basis, granting permission to use the permit is a conglomeration of computerized data and human observation, said LeClair, the area fire management officer.

With their hundreds of permits requested each year, local residents use fire as a way to rid themselves of slash, building debris and unwanted vegetation, he said. But danger lurks, LeClair said, and he usually knows where.

Using daily weather, wind and air conditions, LeClair and Fire Prevention Officer Sharon Roesch comb through data and apply it to a standard fire danger rating system.

"We have 40 weather stations that give us a snapshot of various atmospheric conditions," LeClair said. "This data is directly downloaded into a computer that crunches the numbers."

Many of these weather stations are remote and fully automated, Roesch said. The stations contribute hourly information about ground moisture, relative humidity, measurable rainfall, temperature and wind speed. Without leaving the office, LeClair and Roesch can make accurate determinations on burning conditions in various areas.

First to consider, LeClair said, is the combustibility of the surface. These include the types of vegetation, such as grasses, dead or live spruce, alder or hardwoods. These types of ground covers become fuel when ignited, and thus are a major factor in LeClair's risk assessment. Early in the year grass is the primary fire carrier, LeClair said, but during dry summer months trees become matchsticks waiting for a spark of ignition.

After reviewing the computerized area data, LeClair and Roesch determine what level of fire hazard exists using an established risk-planning schedule.

The standard guide, referred to as the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System, is used throughout North America, LeClair said. The guide gives general recommendations to prepare for quick and efficient response to wildland fires.

Divided into five categories, this action plan allows LeClair and his personnel to make risk assessment.

At level one, for instance, new fire starts are unlikely to sustain themselves. By level four, burning conditions have become critical and fires are difficult to control. Attempts to attack these fires are limited to heavy helicopters with buckets. At level five, fighting the fire is rarely possible.

Included in this planning schedule is an action guide LeClair uses to staff his area. Recommendations for a risk level four include increased personnel for dispatching, three engine crews with two engine crews on standby, a helicopter, helicopter load jumpers and an air tanker with two people available for extended hours. Fire danger is listed at very high, and keeping residents informed should be a high priority.

"Those are considered red-flag zones," Roesch said. "Burning should be suspended and public awareness is critical."

While conditions might look appealing for burning, particularly after a light rain, Roesch said, permit holders must call in to get permission to activate the permit and begin burning.

"We need a good soaking to change the fire danger conditions -- a rain of at least half an inch of measurable precipitation. That's actually quite a bit," she said.

Burn permit holders within city limits need to notify the local fire station to burn legally, said Homer Fire Chief Bob Painter. He said the usual fire danger levels are factored in, but knowing his own staffing capabilities lets him keep control of burning within the city limits. Usually his allotment of activated burn permits is more conservative than his counterparts in the state office.

"We have to closely consider our manpower," Painter said. "If we have a fire going, we might issue a burning suspension."

The staff of Forestry firefighters also issues burn permits but does not determine if the permit can be activated, said Terry Anderson, South Kenai Peninsula Suppression Coordinator. But with a high fire danger currently existing in the lower Kenai, crews are ready, he said.

Prevention should be a public concern, Anderson said. Forestry wants to be responsive to people who want to burn on their property. But Anderson added that 99 percent of all fires on the Kenai Peninsula are started unintentionally by people. That's one reason, he said, that the Division of Forestry vigilantly deciphers weather, wind and temperature conditions before allowing permit holders to strike the match.

Lois Grushka is a reporter for the Homer News.

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