Miscommunication mars burn

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

There are some issues for which a need-to-know basis is appropriate. Prescribed burns, it turns out, are not one of those situations.

Residents of Kenai, Soldotna and Anchorage thought the worst Friday when a billowing column of smoke appeared on the horizon. Was it a volcanic eruption or an out-of-control wildfire?

In reality, the smoke was the result of a prescribed burn near Kenai Lake.

Katy Toth-Stauble, an information specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in the Seward Ranger District, said she received very few phone calls from the Moose Pass and Cooper Landing area. However, the fact that she and one other staff member personally called everyone in both area phone books could have definitely had an impact.

People in the area around the fire had been fully informed nearly a week prior to the ignition, but few other peninsula residents knew what to make of the dark cloud.

Mike Stubbs, fire management officer for the Forest Service, said the ball was dropped internally.

"We need to find out where this thing fell apart and fix it," he said. "We hope to continue improving our communication with entities from postings at the post office, messages with local media to individuals. ...

"A few things slipped through the cracks, we will be doing better next time," Stubbs said.

The Forest Service has up to six more prescribed fires on the books for the remainder of the summer, Stubbs said, but added that, realistically and logistically, there will probably be only three additional burns this summer.

"We have to line up resources and crew and the weather has to be cooperative," said Mike Kania, Seward district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

The Grant Lake area near Moose Pass will probably be the next site of ignition. Stubbs said, he hopes within the next 10 days.

However, the Forest Service will not burn on a holiday weekend and will make an effort not to ignite a fire on regular weekends.

"We are sensitive to people in the general public." Stubbs said. "Ruining people's holiday weekend is not high on our list."

Some peninsula residents remain concerned about the threat of a prescribed fire burning out of control, particularly when burn permits for residents had been suspended.

"I don't care what they say, what I care about is what they are going to do when my house burns down," said Jim Myers of Sterling. "I don't want the federal government handing me a low-interest loan to rebuild my house."

Myers and others fear that a prescribed burn may end up like the Los Alamos, N.M., fire in May 2000 that destroyed more than 18,000 acres and 200 homes.

"I can appreciate where they are coming from," Stubbs said. "There were some things at the Los Alamos fire that could have been done better. At the same time the odds are in our favor, Sens. Murkowski and Stevens are very adamant that we should do something."

The government is so concerned about the threat of wildfire that the local Forest Service office was given an additional $500,000 to supplement its usual budget of $90,000.

"These burns are part of a national fire plan to get a handle on fuels in general," Stubbs said.

This burn in particular was meant to safeguard the communities of Cooper Landing, Moose Pass and Hope.

"We don't burn close to communities, we cut down by hand and then burn the slash in the fall and winter," Kania said.

Prescribed burning allows the Forest Service to ignite the fire under controllable conditions. The main objective of the burn plan for Friday's fire was to eliminate hazardous fuels and improve wildlife habitat.

The same conditions that make a burn permit suspension necessary are perfect for a prescribed burn, said Kris Eriksen, fire information officer at the state Division of Forestry.

"The warmer the better -- if it is cool and cloudy it won't burn as fast and there is more smoke because there is more humidity," Toth-Stauble said.

Stubbs said Friday was an "extremely good day" for the prescribed burn.

"We had a little bit of rain in the area earlier, really nice winds tailing it off toward Homer," he said. "The temps, humidity and winds were absolutely optimal."

The burn permit suspension enacted early last week by Forestry was based on the National Weather Service's prediction that an omega block, or stretch of 25 mph winds, would hit the western half of the peninsula. The winds never materialized, but at that point the suspension had already been placed, Stubbs said.

Regardless of whether the suspension was necessary, it doesn't affect the land where the prescribed burn was located. The fire was ignited in federal lands by the U.S. Forest Service. The suspension applies to land on the western side of the peninsula under the protection of the Division of Forestry.

"The prescribed burn is a totally different situation," said Sharon Roesch, fire prevention officer for the Division of Forestry in Soldotna.

"Homeowners lighting fires are the number one cause of wildfires for state Forestry. The word homeowners, right there, defines the difference in the risk. The fires are lit closer to home."

In the case of Friday's prescribed burn, it was well protected by natural and manmade boundaries and is adjacent to a burn from two years ago.

The west side of the peninsula, where the permit suspension is in place, has a lot of flat land, not the same topography or temperatures. Fire risk in the Chugach National Forest is not as significant or severe because the climate at the higher elevation is a little bit different, Stubbs said.

"There was never any danger in it going out of control," he said. "Friday worked out great. All the things have to come together, the main body burned really well with no problems. If it had been outside our window we would not have ignited."

Stubbs and Kania said they believe that the objectives of the burn were met, and they hope that future burns will be better received.

"We do have other ignitions planned, but we won't light them until this one is secure," Stubbs said.

"We appreciate the public's interest and concern, and we encourage them to ask and seek answers. I am a firm believer in that. The more we let the people know what we are doing the more they are going to understand."

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