ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The federal fire official who ordered the prescribed burn that became a wildfire near Kenai Lake says he stands behind the decision.
''You really, really hate it when you're the one that lights the match and it gets away,'' said Mark Black, the boss on a 1,100-acre prescribed burn that expanded Tuesday. ''If there are injuries or houses or lives lost, I would have a hard time dealing with myself.''
But Black told the Anchorage Daily News he stands behind his decision to ignite the blaze. Conditions June 15 looked perfect for torching a sea of flammable beetle-killed spruce to rejuvenate the forest and provide new forage for moose and bears. Rain was forecast for six of 10 burn days.
The rain never came. Then, a warm wind fanned embers into flames late Monday, hours after a 20-person hotshot crew left the fire that appeared under control. A rising column of smoke spat an ember half a mile into an unburned area.
An hour later, the new wildfire measured upward of 75 acres.
By midnight, Black was back on the scene, declaring his prescribed burn a wildfire and calling in teams from Outside as part of a 300-person firefighting contingent.
The art of prescribed burning revolves around weather forecasting. Too much moisture, the fire smokes out residents and doesn't burn dead trees. Too little, and it becomes a wildfire.
In Alaska, weather forecasting is a difficult science, Black said.
The burn boss, a fire official since 1967, said nobody could have predicted the wind that kicked up Monday.
''If I had to burn it again tomorrow, I'd burn it the same way,'' Black said. ''It felt good.''
The Forest Service has canceled the six other prescribed burns it had planned for the Chugach this summer. It has mostly spent its burn budget already.
Frustrated peninsula residents opposed the Forest Service plan even before the fire was lit, wary of a month without rain.
''They won't let anybody burn burn piles in their yard, yet they go out and burn 1,000 acres and it gets away from them,'' said Greg Thrall, a Moose Pass resident.
Land management agencies rarely ''lose'' a burn, said Dave Bunnell, national fire-use program manager based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. On average, the five federal land agencies burn 4,000 times a year; fewer than 2 percent of those fires escape.
Bunnell said he has evaluated the Kenai Lake burn and has not seen any problem with the way it was planned and carried out.
''I can only imagine that for local people we look really dumb. All isn't as it appears to be,'' Bunnell said. ''These things aren't undertaken without a tremendous amount of thought and planning.''
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