Where there’s smoke, there was bonfire in Kenai

Flood of firefighters find summer solstice party after report of black plume from river’s south beach

Posted: Friday, June 23, 2006

People on the Kenai side of the Kenai River saw a large plume of black smoke rise from across the river Wednesday night. They called 911.

Not knowing the exact location or the nature of the fire, the Kenai Fire Department, Central Emergency Services and firefighters from the state Division of Forestry were all sent to respond.

Fire trucks from three different locations converged on the site, sirens blaring, warning other motorists to the side of the road.

When firefighters arrived, they learned the source of the smoke was a large bonfire started on purpose by people having a celebration on summer’s longest day on the beach south of the river.

“Somebody was having a bonfire on the beach off Cannery Road off Chinulna (Drive),” said Kenai Fire Marshal James Baisden on Thursday.

“It was determined to be a safe fire,” he said.

The revelers, however, had used a petroleum-based product to get the bonfire going, which resulted in the smoke plume seen from the other side of the river.

That brought the response from three different agencies.

“Out of courtesy to emergency responders, if you’re gonna put up a column of smoke, call the local fire department and let them know so they won’t have to respond if they’re not needed,” said Sharon Roesch, wildfire prevention officer for Alaska Forestry.

She said a large percentage of injuries to firefighters occur while responding to a fire.

Roesch also said beach fires and warming fires are not prohibited, and depending on local ordinances around the Kenai Peninsula, usually do not require a burn permit, but permits are required if people are burning large piles of brush.

She also said that, for air quality reasons, the Department of Environmental Conservation has regulations prohibiting the burning of petroleum products.

In Kenai, where large numbers of dipnetters will soon hit the beach for the sockeye salmon run, camping and warming fires are allowed, and burn permits are not required, as long as the fires are kept small, according to Baisden.

Fires are not permitted to the right of the parking lot at the foot of Spruce Street toward Forest Drive, where there is vegetation that could catch fire and quickly spread up the bluffs, threatening structures, he said.

“People should have their fires down on the beach near the high-tide mark away from any vegetation,” Baisden said.

Even though burn permits are not required for camping and warming fires, a person must attend the fire at all times.

If people are planning to have a large bonfire in conjunction with a celebration within Kenai city limits, a burn permit is required.

Before rain began falling on areas of the Kenai Peninsula on Wednesday night and Thursday, Roesch said, “We were creeping up into high (fire danger).”

With the rain, the fire danger level, as monitored by the Division of Forestry, has returned to low.

Contrary to what seems normal, the threat of fire tends to increase as the fire danger level goes down, according to Roesch.

She said when the fire danger level is high or extreme, people are much more cautious, and less cautious when the danger level is moderate or low.

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