In an effort to prevent future forest fires and improve wildlife habitat, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge plans to ignite a fire this weekend approximately 10 miles northeast of Sterling.
The project is part of the Mystery Creek prescribed burn project, which was begun in 1991. The project aims to burn about 5,000 acres of beetle-killed spruce trees in the area. Since 1991, about 1,000 acres have been successfully burned, according to refuge officials. Roughly 5,000 acres are scheduled to burn before the project is complete.
Refuge spokesperson Bill Kent said Thursday the burn will help alleviate dangerous fire conditions.
"It will reduce the black spruce fuel load in the area," Kent explained. "It will give a partial fuel break," making it harder for future wildfires to spread.
Several agencies are involved in the project. In addition to the refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Peninsula Spruce Bark Beetle Task Force have also signed off on the burn. Additionally, more agencies will be involved in managing the blaze, which is expected to consume between 400 and 2,000 acres, depending on weather conditions. If conditions are considered too volatile, the burn will be extinguished.
Kent said that firefighting crews from the Division of Forestry and the Kenai Fire Crew will work the burn, as well as at least one helicopter.
"We've got lots of bodies," Kent said.
The burn will be ignited by dropping special fuel-filled "ping pong balls" from a helicopter. When the balls are dropped, they are punctured by a small needle, which causes them to ignite as they fall to the ground. Kent said this method will allow fire managers better control of the initial blaze.
"You get a good, wide dispersal," he said.
In addition to reducing volatile fuel loads in the area, the burn will also encourage new trees to grow in the future, improving habitat for some wildlife.
"It will benefit the moose and other animals that utilize hardwood forests," Kent said.
The prescribed burn is scheduled to begin, weather permitting, today. How long managers let the fire burn will depend on how the weather cooperates, Kent said. If windy, dry conditions arise, the blaze will be extinguished or severely curtailed.
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