Residents seek safer burn site

Posted: Sunday, June 25, 2006

Cohoe Loop Road residents have found a silver lining in the dark, ashy smoke cloud created by last month’s 67-acre blaze.

“Although we could have lost the whole neighborhood had the wind been blowing the other direction, the fire brought some good in that it woke a lot of people up about the danger in this area,” said Cohoe Loop resident Leif Jenkinson.

The numerous dense stands of dry, beetle-killed spruce trees — many close to homes — are the danger Jenkinson is referring to. He said the recent fire sparked community interest in reducing the risk from these fire hazards.

Jenkinson, who came to Cohoe from the soggy, Southeast panhandle of Alaska in January 2006, said he is no stranger to fire danger as a result of his move. Much of the 15-acre parcel of property he bought with his wife, Judy, is covered in beetle-killed spruce.

He said they quickly began working to remove the dead trees, but it was a time-consuming endeavor because of the slash (limbs and woody debris) generated from a single tree and how long it takes — and in some cases, how far a homeowner must go — to get rid of the slash.

“Within days we had dump truck loads of brush,” Jenkinson said.

Jenkinson said he considered burning the debris with an open-burn permit, but with the volume of brush he had already accumulated, “it would have been weeks until I was done.”

If the state Division of Forestry had issued burn bans, which are frequent throughout the dry months of summer, the project would have taken even longer.

Jenkinson said he considered driving the debris to the Firewise Slash Disposal Site at Mile 13 of the Kenai Spur Highway. While it would have been safe, it wasn’t economical to drive from Cohoe to Kenai numerous times a day.

“I had at least 20 loads of slash and at $3 a gallon for gas, it wasn’t cost effective,” he said.

Jenkinson talked to his neighbors, Bill and Francis Casey, and found that they had the same dead-spruce dilemma, so the four of them organized a community meeting to determine if others were equally concerned.

“Despite it being a sunny, summer Sunday, 30 people showed up, so we knew there was interest,” he said.

The group discussed the beetle-kill problem and what their options were. It was decided that a slash disposal site was needed near the Cohoe Loop area.

Jenkinson and the others contacted several local and state agencies, including the Division of Forestry, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program and Central Emergency Services.

“All the agencies were very cooperative and concerned with helping out. It was great,” he said.

From this collaborative effort, a large quarry — located a few miles down North Cohoe Loop Road, almost across from Aurora Court — has been designated as a site for slash burning.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities have agreed to allow the site to be used for that purpose for one year, with the option for further use in the future, according to Roberta Wilfong, program manager for the Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program and a Kasilof resident involved in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

“It will still be a few weeks before slash can begin being brought to the site, though,” she said.

Wilfong explained that a gate needs to be erected at the quarry’s entrance to ensure that only slash — not garbage or junk cars — are disposed of at the site.

Whether the slash will be burned by designated fire crews or an air-curtain burner is still being discussed. The latter is a high-temperature incinerator that produces very little smoke and ash, yet is capable of burning stumps.

Once these issues are resolved, Wilfong said people will be able to bring their slash to the site 20 hours a week, and that it will be free to do so.

She said the hours of operation will be Tuesday and Thursday evening from 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

Wilfong added that she hopes other communities throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough will be inspired by the example set by the Cohoe Loop community, and become active in disposing of beetle-killed spruce in their own necks of the woods.

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