Swanson River paddlers, Sterling youth spot smoldering campfires

Citizen action prevents wildfires

Posted: Thursday, July 06, 2000

Residents of Nikiski have good reason to be thankful for a group of canoeists who traveled along the Swanson River last week. They prevented what may have been a disastrous wildfire.

Jackie Dillon, of Soldotna, was canoeing on the river with a group of friends, about three miles from the Captain Cook Recreation Area, when they saw smoke rising from the trees along the left bank.

"There were no other canoes or boats pulled up on shore," said Dillon. "One of us shouted 'Hello!' but no one was there, so we pulled in to take a look."

Tim Twohy and Hugh Garske, two members of the party, went ashore and found a vacated campsite on the bank.

"The fire in the fire pit was cold but it had gone underground and was burning up into the trees," Dillon said.

Garske, a firefighter who works for Arco on the North Slope, knew what to do next.

"They filled up bags and coolers of water -- lots of water -- and carried it up the bank several times and made sure the fire was out," said Dillon. "Then they dug up the fire pit and threw the coals down into the river. We were the last ones coming down the river that day, so it would have been a rip-roaring fire if we hadn't spotted it."

Unusually dry conditions on the Kenai Peninsula this summer have resulted in extreme fire danger in the area's forests. A wildfire along the lower Swanson River could endanger homes in the outlying areas of Nikiski.

"We have had very low rainfall for June and July," said Sharon Roesch, a fire prevention officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry. "If you've been watering your grass and flowers to keep them from drying up, you can assume that the forest is just as dry, and it's not getting watered. One little patch of coals from a campfire can spread, and that's how a wildfire gets started."

Another fire along Arc Loop Road near Sterling was prevented by a boy who had been out climbing rocks. Chris Allen, 10, was with his father, Russ Allen, on July 1. Allen said they had gone out for the day to a ridge near the road where there are several large boulders, which Chris likes to climb on.

"I was playing on the side of the big rock and I saw smoke, and when I went down I found a fire," Chris said. "I threw some stuff on it to help put it out. It looked like it was spreading.

"It looked like several people had been partying back there and left their fire burning," Allen said. "I didn't know how deep the fire was or how long it had been there. Some of these fires can burn down for a while and then they flare back up. I thought we'd better call someone about it."

They returned home and called 911. Forestry and Central Emergen-cy Services extinguished the fire before it spread very far, due to the prompt report. Chris was rewarded with a prize package, including a Smokey Bear water bottle, bumper sticker and school supplies.

"I told him he could come over and get some Smokey Bear stuff, and they were here in five minutes," said Sharon Roesch. "Chris Allen was our Hero of the Day."

Roesch reminded peninsula residents and campers to make absolutely sure their fires are out before leaving them.

"Sometimes people think their fire is out but it's not," she said. "Build it on dirt or gravel and make sure it's completely out by stirring it. There can still be live coals under the ashes. The ground is very dry, and a fire built on duff will spread underground."

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