Kenai fire raises questions about controlled burns

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Forest Service is battling to preserve the public's faith in controlled burns after losing control of its 1,100-acre prescribed burn on the north shore of Kenai Lake.

Controlled burns are used increasingly to reduce wildfire danger on overgrown and insect-infested forests nationwide. The practice hasn't always gone smoothly. A burn at Los Alamos, N.M., last year escaped and destroyed more than 250 houses. The year before, a 100-acre prescribed burn in Northern California torched 23 houses.

The Forest Service's controlled burn at Kenai Lake west of the Seward Highway blew out of control June 25. It blossomed to 3,260 acres. By the time it was contained last week, it had threatened scattered dwellings in the Crown Point-Lawing area and led to an evacuation warning.

Cool, damp weather on Sunday was helping efforts by about 160 firefighters assigned to mop up the Kenai Lake fire, said Roger Stilipec, a spokesperson for the Alaska Fire Service.

The Forest Service had not planned to do large burns at Kenai Lake. It wanted loggers to cut the dead and dying spruce that has made parts of the Chugach National Forest such a fire hazard over the past decade.

''The logging company could have made money and taken care of the fire risks,'' Jackie Denny, manager of Crown Point Lodge near Kenai Lake, told the Anchorage Daily News. ''Instead, the Forest Service let those trees sit and rot. Then they do a controlled burn, lose control of it, and the fire comes right up to my back door.''

Spruce bark beetles have infested up to 500,000 acres of spruce trees on the Kenai, about 60,000 acres of which are in the Chugach National Forest.

The choice of whether to log in the mid-1990s was complex and politically charged. Amid controversy and court cases, the Forest Service canceled logging projects on the north shore of Kenai Lake.

Prescribed burning has rapidly replaced logging as the main weapon for warding off potential wildfires. Nationwide, nearly all such burns go off without a hitch. In fact, of the 3,065 state and federal burns so far this year, fewer than 0.5 percent have escaped from their boundaries, the Forest Service said.

''You light the match yourself, and you're responsible for the outcome,'' said Forest Service burn boss Mark Black, who lit the Kenai Lake fire last month. ''I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've lost exactly two burns.''

The other fire that escaped under his command happened in the 1980s on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. The burn did not damage any property, he said.

Fires are set with the weather in mind, but forecasts can change. Shifting winds can blow a burn out of its range or send smoke into populated areas.

In 1999, a Forest Service prescribed burn at Kenai Lake smoked out an asthmatic children's camp at Cooper Landing and generated 50 to 60 complaints from nearby residents.

Black, who was in charge of that burn, said the camp opened a few days after he ignited the fire. As soon as the Forest Service became aware of the camp, it moved the kids away from the smoke, he said.

The prescribed fire Black set June 15 was adjacent to the 1999 burn. Smoke wasn't an issue, but the weather turned out to be.

The forecast called for rain, but it never came. A warm wind fanned embers into flames 10 days after the burn was set.

Black stands behind his decision to burn that day. Still, a national review began Friday to see what could have been done differently. The Forest Service has canceled other prescribed fires in the Chugach National Forest.

And Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, plans to introduce legislation this week that would add more oversight in Washington, D.C., of prescribed burns on federal lands nationwide.

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