Volcanic concerns raised by fire

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2001

Kenai Peninsula residents wondered if a volcano had erupted Friday afternoon when a suspicious cloud appeared on the horizon.

The true culprit was not an angry volcano, but a prescribed burn near Kenai Lake.

Flames ignited by the U.S. Forest Service between noon and 2 p.m. could be seen from a pullout at Mile 22.9 of the Seward Highway and the smoke was visible even as far south as Kenai and Soldotna.

The fire covered a prescribed area of 1,081 acres approximately three miles west of the Trail River Campground.

"We are expecting the fuels to burn quickly, rapidly and fairly hot, giving us a good column of smoke that will dissipate quickly," said Katy Toth-Stauble on Friday shortly before the fire was ignited.

The weather Friday was optimal for prescription burning, said Toth-Stauble, an information specialist for the Seward Ranger District of the Chugach National Forest. Sunny skies and a lack of wind meant the fire would be easily contained within its boundaries.

The Forest Service had crews on hand to monitor the fire. Additional groups in Soldotna were available to provide support if necessary. A helicopter outfitted with a water bucket and a slurry bomber, an airplane with fire retardant, were also capable of reaching the fire.

According to Toth-Stauble, a fire is considered out of prescription if it has left not only the boundaries of the core fire, but has also evaded the extended limits set prior to igniting the flames.

"We expect the fire will be monitored for seven days to watch for any reburns that might happen," Toth-Stauble said. "It should be contained by Friday evening."

She cautioned residents that flames and smoke could possibly still be visible for several days after it has been determined that the fire is laying down and hasn't jumped any boundaries. However, she said, conditions Friday would ensure there wasn't a chance of fuels smoldering underneath the forest floor, Toth-Stauble said.

According to air quality forecasts, heavy quantities of smoke are not expected.

The Forest Service took precautions prior to the burn by contacting most of the residents of Moose Pass and Cooper Landing. Through telephone or letter, they were informed of the proposed burn. Those at high-risk because of respiratory problems were accounted for and warned about the possible danger, said Toth-Stauble.

Additionally, Toth-Stauble and other Forest Service employees were stationed at Seward Highway Mile 22.9 to answer questions regarding the prescribed fire.

The purpose of a prescribed fire is to remove accumulated fuels caused by spruce bark beetles. Fuels, anything that can burn, pose a fire hazard in areas where there is a substantial buildup, said Toth-Stauble.

Prescribed fires are also meant to establish a fire break and create mineral soil seedbeds to improve wildlife habitat in the area.

The Forest Service had another prescribed fire planned for the area Friday. However, the burn scheduled for the Grant Lake area in Moose Pass will not be ignited until later in the summer due to the frozen ground and other conditions that could hinder burning.

An additional six prescribed fires are planned for this summer in the Seward Ranger District of the Chugach National Forest. The best time for most of the burns occurs during a 30- to 45-day window in the summer when weather and fuel moisture conditions are optimum for fires that expose mineral soil.

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