Forest Service officials face dilemma in getting rid of 'fuel' in Chugach

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

It would be easy to second guess Chugach National Forest officials and the wisdom of starting a 1,100-acre prescribed burn June 15.

After all, elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula, a burn permit suspension was in effect, and fire danger was high.

And people's memories are not so short that they don't remember the fire set in May 2000 by the National Park Service to clear brush in New Mexico. That fire burned out of control in dry, windy weather, forcing the evacuation of 25,000 people, scorching 47,000 acres, leaving 405 families homeless and damaging the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.

At least to the experts who make these kinds of decisions, we are certain there are huge differences between the Los Alamos fire and the one burning near Kenai Lake. We are also sure there are logical arguments about why it's unsafe for the public to burn, but it is OK for federal agencies.

But the general public doesn't have the knowledge the experts do, and their arguments against the burn sound just as logical. What Jane and Joe Q. Citizen know is: Fire is fire.

It's natural for them to ask, "If it's dangerous for me to burn debris in my yard, why is it OK for the Forest Service to burn hundreds of acres?" And when they see a volcanic-like plume of smoke rising in the distance, as they did on June 15, it's natural for them to say: "Remember, Los Alamos." (After, of course, they realize it is a prescribed burn and not some new volcano erupting on the eastern side of the peninsula.)

The good news is the fire in the Chugach National Forest is tiny in comparison to the one in Los Alamos; people are not nearly so close to the blaze; and no houses are in immediate danger.

Plus, Chugach officials have marshaled available firefighting resources to get a handle on the fire quickly -- so it doesn't grow out of control.

We sympathize with U.S. Forest Service officials. The peninsula's dead forests -- killed by a spruce bark beetle epidemic -- are a disaster waiting to happen. Prescribed burns, like the one ignited June 15, are designed to reduce the danger. Far better to burn that "fuel" in a prescribed burn with firefighting resources close at hand than for it to start some other way -- an unattended campfire, a cigarette -- where it wouldn't be so easy to control.

The most valuable lesson to come out of the incident is this: A controlled burn got out of the hands of professionals. If it can happen to the experts, it can happen to you.

Fire danger on the peninsula is extremely high, and people need to exercise extreme caution. One sure way to reduce the fire danger is to follow the rules.

People should never burn when burning is not permitted. The state Division of Forestry and other peninsula fire service agencies are expected to announce today only campfires in approved pits and small beach fires below the high water line and 25 feet away from combustible materials are the only burning that will be allowed until further notice.

Even those fires pose a danger, and anyone who burns should make sure all fires are extinguished completely before leaving an area. Any fire, no matter how small, should always be attended.

Smokers need to be aware of the dangers of throwing out a lit cigarette or a match. With weather conditions like they are, the smallest of sparks could ignite a major blaze.

Failing to be careful could prove costly in more ways than one. People who light fires that result in wildland fire suppression may be responsible for payment of those suppression costs, as well as penalties for burning without a permit or for negligent burning.

As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, some people may be tempted to celebrate with fireworks. Not only is that a terrible and dangerous idea, it's also illegal. The sale and use of fireworks within the Kenai Peninsula Borough is prohibited. The exception is the borough mayor may issue a permit to organizations or groups for public fireworks displays in areas outside of the cities. Those permits, however, must be issued at least 30 days prior to the event.

It would be too bad if the peninsula's beautiful summer went up in smoke because of someone's carelessness. Peninsula residents need to take every possible precaution to prevent a fire from breaking out.

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