New forest, just add fire

Prescribed burn meant to improve habitat, safety

Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2007


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  Fire burns through forest near Skilak Lake 11 years ago. The area is now lush with young growth. Clarion file photo

A young bull moose browses earlier this year. Refuge planners hope to improve moose habitat while building a natural fire break with a controlled burn later this week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Unlike its location suggests, woods on the Moose River Flats by the East Fork Moose River east of Sterling aren’t good habitat for moose. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge hopes to change that with a prescribed burn Thursday.

The refuge plans to burn 431 acres in the Lily Lake area, said Dianne MacLean, assistant fire management officer.

The Lily Lake area is comprised largely of dense, continuous stands of black spruce between the East Fork Moose River and the northeast corner of the Sterling Corridor — an area of private and public lands that includes the communities of Soldotna, Sterling and Funny River, surrounded on the north, south and east by the refuge.

Refuge personnel are hoping to use the prescribed fire to transform the area into a natural barrier against wildfires, while simultaneously improving habitat for moose and other animals.

“Prescribed fires are really good for altering habitat. We can do more, per acre, with fire than any other habitat management tool we have,” said Jim Hall, deputy refuge manager.

As evidence Hall points to the nearby Mystery Creek area, where prescribed fires in the late 1980s, ’90s and one in 2002 transformed spruce forest similar to how the Lily Lake area is now into a lush hardwood forest.


Fire burns through forest near Skilak Lake 11 years ago. The area is now lush with young growth.

Clarion file photo

“(The Mystery Creek area) now has a huge component of birch, willow and some aspen, all of which is good moose browse, which is why we are now seeing very high concentrations of moose in this area,” he said.

According to Hall, other species abound in this early hardwood growth, including black bears, snowshoe hares, lynx and porcupines.

“This area will also be one of the best firebreaks you can have for the next 30 to 50 years. If a lightning strike ignites a fire, like it did in 2001 at Thurman Creek and Mystery Hills, we now have a buffer if that fire tries to run toward Sterling,” Hall said.

The Lily Lake prescribed fire will be the final link in a firebreak chain made up of wetlands and past burn areas, and it has been a long time coming, according to Hall. In preparation for the burn, a fire break ring was made around the area two years ago to better ensure containment of the fire.

“Using a dozer and scraping down to the mineral soil, we put in a perimeter,” he said.

To the center of this ring is another, between 300 and 600 feet in width, made up of downed trees which will burn less intensely to further lessen the risk of the fire getting away.

On the inner core of these rings is still-standing black spruce, which will burn the hottest in the hope of promoting the fire’s consumption of ground mosses and duff to expose the soil.

“To accomplish the regeneration we’re looking for, we have to get the duff burned off and get down to the mineral layer, so hardwoods will be able to seed in and create thick stands,” MacLean said.

Weather and wind can’t be controlled, but MacLean said the burn shouldn’t blanket Sterling or the Kenai/Soldotna in smoke.

“There will be a little bit of residual smoke in the area of the burn for up to a week,” she said.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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