Prescribed burn becomes wildfire

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Despite upgrading it to "wildland fire" status on Monday, the U.S. Forest Service still maintains the prescribed burn ignited near Kenai Lake on June 15 went well.

"We still think the prescribed fire was the right way to go," said Doug Stockdale, public affairs officer for Chugach National Forest. "Unfortunately, this one has jumped."

At 11 p.m. Monday, the U.S. Forest Service reported a 75- to 100-acre fire outside the prescribed burn but still within the additional two-mile radius that made up the maximum boundary.

However, within a few hours, another fire, this time a 50-acre spot fire around one quarter of a mile outside the perimeter, was reported to the Forest Service.

Thirty people were evacuated from the Trail River Campground to the Ptarmigan Creek Campground at 1 a.m. Tuesday. The Forest Service declared a state of wildfire and called in resources from both the Lower 48 and throughout the state.

"In this particular case, this surprised us," Stockdale said. "I haven't heard anyone say this is a major concern at this time. But that isn't to say it isn't serious. Anytime it is outside of the line we consider it serious," he said.

Thus far the Forest Service has ordered a Type I management team as well as two Type I hand crews and four Type II hand crews. Once all the teams have arrived, there will be more than 100 people working on the fire.

The management team will take over from the Forest Service and create an interagency team to fight the fire. The Type I hand crews always fight as a team and are highly trained.

"We don't know where they are coming from, but since they have been ordered and there aren't any available in the state -- that makes the probability that they will come from out of state very likely," said Kris Eriksen, fire information officer for the state Division of Forestry.

The management team has been sent from Boise, Idaho. The Type II hand crew team could be Native Alaskan or agency crews from in the state, Stockdale said.

"Type I fire is the biggest. You only order it up when you have a fire with real potential," Eriksen said.

Five helicopters, in addition to the one Forestry has loaned the Forest Service, have also been ordered, as has one fixed-wing air tanker with retardant capabilities. However, low lying smoke is creating visibility problems, and the aircraft is having difficulty flying.

For now, an eight- to 10-member hand crew is on site at Shilter Creek constructing a burn line to protect against the spot fire along the creek.

"That is the one we are concerned about," Stockdale said. "It is a problem if it jumps the creek, that would create some problems for us."

If the fire jumps the creek, it would put the communities of Moose Pass and Seward in danger.

"The greatest potential threat is to Moose Pass," Eriksen said. "That is the direction the wind is blowing."

"The fire has a real potential to get bigger. The area that it is in is very dangerous, steep and has enormous fuels -- some trees are 30 inches in diameter and 100 feet tall."

Stockdale agreed that conditions can improve or exacerbate the situation.

"Winds predicted for (Tuesday) are the problem," he said.

Predictions for today and Thursday are for winds from the east, which would blow the fire back toward the prescribed burn area. It was wind blowing from east to west that appears to be the culprit behind the escaped burn, Stockdale said.

"This happens periodically. That is why we manage until it is dead. We never declared this one out."

The fire had been smoldering for 11 days when the wildfire was declared. Stockdale said a normal fire burns for seven to 10 days, but there was no rain after the burn on June 15, and it hadn't been checked out yet to determine if it was out.

However, the Forest Service thought the fire was in control enough to warrant dismissing the Tazlina Hotshot crew, which had been on site monitoring and mopping up the remainders of the burn. The Hotshots were released from the fire Monday afternoon.

Because the Hotshot crew was no longer on site, the Forest Service decided it did not have the resources to fight the fire completely. In order to call in Type I and Type II teams the fire had to be declared escaped.

"It has the potential to go outside the area. We wanted the resources on hand now, in case something happens."

The fire is some way from evacuation status, Eriksen said. However, the borough Office of Emergency Management is being kept in the information loop regarding the fire. A borough liaison officer was sent to advise the incident commander about borough resources and capabilities, said Jan Henry, coordinator for the Office of Emergency Management. In the case of evacuation, the office would be in charge of organizing the procedure and setting up shelters.

"There is a remote possibility that Moose Pass will be evacuated," Henry said. "We are in preparedness mode right now."

The Forest Service has set up a phone line for residents to call with any questions. For more information regarding the fire, call 271-2503.

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