Refuge to monitor fire

Caribou Hills blaze smolders; prescribed burn planned

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2007


  Photo by M. Scott Moon Surrounded by scorched earth, a cabin stands untouched in the Caribou Hills. Fire officials will continue to monitor a small area of the fire that is still burning but firefighting crews have been demobilized. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Photo by M. Scott Moon Surrounded by scorched earth, a cabin stands untouched in the Caribou Hills. Fire officials will continue to monitor a small area of the fire that is still burning but firefighting crews have been demobilized.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The 55,648 acre Caribou Hills fire is roughly 80 percent contained and has now been downgraded to a monitoring status, but fire managers are planning to spark another blaze east of Sterling this week.

"It's running in the northeast corner, but these little burning patches are corralled by wetlands, old burns and hardwoods stands, so we're expecting it will burn out on its own," said Doug Newbould, fire management officer for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

On Friday, firefighters were demobilized off the fire, and engines, hoses and other firefighting equipment were reassigned or released. The remaining personnel and three dozers came off on Saturday.

"We'll still fly it daily to monitor the active part," Newbould said.

The Kenai-Kodiak Division of Forestry will also frequently monitor it.

The only active part of the fire is on the northeast flank in a designated wilderness area of the refuge, and the decision to monitor, rather than fight, this portion of flames was made as a cost effective way to achieve resource benefits that are desirable and beneficial to the management of the refuge's wilderness area, according Newbould.

The decision also was made out of consideration not to put firefighters at risk since there are safety issues and possible accidents that could easily happen in the rugged terrain, and because burn objectives may be accomplished with just monitoring, he said.

With the Caribou Hills fire under control, fire managers are turning their attention to the Lily Lake area east of Sterling in the hope of preventing future wild infernos, or protecting population centers from a fire at the very least.

"We're hoping to burn next week," Newbould said, in regard to the Lily Lake Prescribed Fire Project tentatively scheduled to begin Tuesday.

The Lily Lake area is 431 acres consisting of 184 acres of hydro-axed (downed and chopped) black spruce surrounding 247 acres of still standing forest of 60-year-old black spruce. The area is located north of the Sterling Highway and the Enstar natural gas pipeline, and adjacent to the East Fork of the Moose River.

A wildland-urban interface fuel reduction project was initiated for this area in 2003, but has been hindered from happening on several occasions. Record fire seasons in Alaska in 2004 and 2005 prevented progress on the project, as did a wet summer last year. The fire was once again set to be ignited last month, Newbould said, "but then the Caribou Hills fire started and pulled all resources from the peninsula, and other parts of the state."

Newbould said prescriptive parameters must be in place before Tuesday's fire can begin. Wind speed, wind direction, smoke dispersion and fire behavior are all considered before ignition, and are constantly monitored during the fire. Any safety, smoke, weather or fire behavior condition that exceeds approved parameters will result in extinguishing the operation.

"We have resources in place to carry this out," Newbould said.

Fire management resources planned for the project include: at least one, but possibly two helicopters, two dozers, several wildland fire engines, and experienced firefighters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Also, a dozer-line and hose lay with portable water tanks and portable pumps have been completed around the perimeter to control fire spread, and the hydro-axed ring (300 to 500 feet wide) within the perimeter is designed to limit fire behavior and risk.

As to why so much work would be put into burning such a seemingly insignificant area, Newbould said the purpose of the prescribed fire is to transform the area into a natural barrier against wildfires while simultaneously improving habitat for moose and other animals through the forest regeneration that follows a fire.

"We're trying to create natural fire barriers around communities to prevent events like we just had in the Caribou Hills, and by converting very flammable fuel — like black spruce, to less flammable fuel — like hardwoods stands, we could have a natural fire barrier that could last for who knows, maybe as much as 100 years," Newbould said.

The Lily Lake project, while small, will serve as a fire barrier because it is the final link in a firebreak chain made up of wetlands and past burn areas.

For more information about the Lily Lake project, contact the refuge manager Robin West, or fire management officer Doug Newbould, at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at (907) 262-7021 or 260-5994.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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