Team effort required to fight wildland fire

Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2002

With a massive inferno like the Hayman wildfire blazing in Colorado threatening suburban Denver and lighting up the evening news, it's easy to wonder whether a similar situation could occur on the Kenai Peninsula.

With an abundance of spruce bark beetle-killed trees all around, the peninsula is a veritable hot bed of combustible material. So if the peninsula were threatened by behemoth wildfires, what would be the course of action for those charged with fighting forest fires?

"If there's a large wildland incident, the landowner agency would be in contact with (the Alaska Division of) Forestry," said Alaska Natural Resources Forestry Fire Management Officer Sharon Roesch. "There would be a unified command."

This emergency effort, she said, would include assistance from Alaska State Troopers, area fire departments, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge or the Chugach State Wildlife Refuge, Alaska Department of Fish and Games and state Parks rangers, among others. These organizations would be coordinated through the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management.

But state Fire Management Officer Rick Plate said such a situation would not be the norm. He said Forestry firefighters would respond first.

"The Division of Forestry, by statute, has responsibility of forestry fire," Plate said. "If it's just a small fire, and we can we can knock it down quickly, we don't call OEM. But if it's big, then we contact other agencies.

"There are so many variables," he said. "It depends on what type of weather we have. Generally, if it's warm and dry, we send a lot of resources."

These resources include 16-person crews from the 65 currently active in the state. There also are tanker planes capable of dousing flames with fire retardant material from above.

Kenai is one of the three statewide bases where tankers refill with firefighting chemicals, and Homer is a secondary refill base.

"If it sounds like a fire is burning near homes, we're going to launch air tankers," Plate said.

In spite of potential damage to property, Roesch said fire crews will look, primarily, to save lives.

"Life safety is priority, not only for residents on the ground, but also for firefighters," she said. "We don't want to lose firefighters to protect a house. Certainly not to protect a tree."

A large wildland fire near Skilak Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in May 1991 scorched 8,400 acres and threatened to turn toward Cooper Landing before fire crews were able to contain it. A fire moving on a community like that could pose a challenge similar to what Colorado fire crews faced in removing more than 5,000 residents from their homes -- evacuation.

"When we see that a (fire) is rolling, we change from fighting it to getting people out of its way," Plate said.

"Statewide, Forestry, along with the troopers, has an evacuation plan."

The multi-level plan is developed so that all parties working together are operating on the same page, he said. Constantly reviewing that plan in downtime makes certain there are no mistakes when lives are at stake.

"The things that you know how to do in nonemergency situations are the things that you will be able to do well in emergency situations," Plate said.

There are four different levels for evacuation:

Pre-evacuation briefings -- preparing involved agencies to follow evacuation procedures;

Evacuation warning -- notifying those living and working in the area that there may be need for an evacuation and admonishing them to stay tuned for more information;

Evacuation directive -- notifying homes definitely threatened by wildland fire. "We go door-to-door and tell people the fire is coming and that it is best to leave," Plate said.

"But we're not going to force people to leave."

Evacuation order -- used in case-by-case situations where emergency workers determine occupants either are in no condition to make the proper choices for themselves or are unable to extract themselves from harm's way.

Plate said he doesn't envision a wildfire completely cutting off the peninsula.

"I don't think we'd ever see a situation where we'd have to evacuate people off the peninsula," he said. "There are enough places where people can get away from fire. Enough swamps and lakes.

"We're not going to see something like Denver. We may have a situation where a fire may close off the road between us and Anchorage, but that's going to be a temporary thing.

"With a little foresight, we will make it."

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