Motorists heading south out of Soldotna on the Sterling Highway may have noticed a new sign with a familiar face waving at them Smokey Bear.
The new sign, put up June 29, is part of Alaska State Forestry's efforts to create and maintain a public awareness through the image of Smokey Bear, about the need to prevent unplanned, careless or human-caused wildland fires.
"We hope it will raise awareness of fire safety issues," said fire prevention technician Tammy Westover.
The new fire safety sign is the fourth around the peninsula, all placed in strategic locations along the Sterling Highway. One is in Cooper Landing, another on the north side of Soldotna and the last can be seen just before entering Homer.
"We picked that area because we thought it would be a good general reminder for all the traffic going south," said Westover. She said many of the recreation sites south of Soldotna keep her busy, adding that the areas around Deep Creek, Ninilchik, Clam Gulch and at the end of Cohoe Loop Road frequently are problematic for the forestry division.
"We've had to respond to and put out 33 fires on the peninsula this year. We put out between five to 10 campfires between Kenai and Homer over Memorial weekend alone," Westover said.
The majority of fires on the peninsula are human caused, she said. This underscores the importance of the fire safety signs, which advertise the fire warnings for a particular area using a four code system.
"The four conditions are low, moderate, high and extreme," Westover said.
She explained low is represented by cool temperatures, lots of rain and almost no danger of fire. Moderate is cool temperatures, cloudy skies, but not much rain. High is when the temperatures are high and there has been no rain. Extreme is when temperatures are high, there has been no rain for an extended period, humidity is low and materials are highly ignitable.
Although the new sign advises of current environmental conditions, that's only part of the equation, Westover said. Fire builders also should be knowledgeable of how and where to build fires and how to properly put them out. They also should have the tools necessary to put them out safely.
Westover recommended using pre-existing fire pits, such as those with metal fire rings that are common in parks and campgrounds, or in pits already built with rock rings, as long as they are not built on duff the leaves, moss and other vegetation that make up the forest floor.
"Fires should never be built on duff because heat and oxygen can remain underground and can keep burning," she said.
Instead, if building a fire from scratch, she recommended building on mineral soil, after clearing a 10-foot perimeter area around the intended fire pit. Also, fires should be built away from any trees or overhanging branches.
"It doesn't take much to get fuels like beetle-killed spruce and black spruce going," she said.
Other tips after lighting a fire include not discarding the match until it is cold; not leaving fires unattended, even for brief periods; and stacking extra wood or flammable materials upwind and away from a fire.
Westover also said people should never build a fire bigger than can be put out with the amount of water available. Water, as well as tools like a small shovel should be kept nearby.
"After water is put on the fire, the shovel is used to stir up the ashes, before more water is added. This process should be repeated several times until the fire is completely out," Westover said.
A fire that is still smoldering should never be left alone and just kicking sand on a fire is not enough to completely extinguish it, she said.
"This is especially true on the beach where the winds could easily kick up and be trouble," Westover said.
She also pointed out that those responsible for wildfires can face criminal and civil penalties, including the costs of putting the fire out and the value of resources destroyed.
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