Red and orange spread like wildfire across a map of the Kenai Peninsula with several blackened areas scattered throughout. Sharon Roesch pointed to the largest black swath just below Tustumena Lake signifying the 55,648-acre Caribou Hills blaze. The red and orange represented spruce bark beetle kill — there was very little green on this map.
"(We) lost 88 structures," Roesch said. "Nine or 10 residents were working to save their homes, but the fire was so insistent they had a hard struggle for 48 hours."
Roesch, fire prevention officer for the Division of Forestry, recapped the Caribou Hills blaze and stressed the importance of being prepared for a fire at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday.
"It's not like a flood, we can prevent fires," she said. "If you clear dead fuel, (fires) get to a point where they can't burn."
Roesch said because people are taking a more proactive role in preventing wildfires, the number of fires caused by escaped debris burns have decreased.
"Over the last few years we've seen people being proactive in local areas," Roesch said. Accidental escape fires from debris burns used to account for 33 percent of the total number of fires per year, but this year only about 28 percent of all fires have been caused by debris burning gone awry. "Either by talking to people or they'll call us and we can go approach folks if they don't feel comfortable doing that," she said.
Roesch encouraged chamber members to create a firebreak around their homes by keeping trees, dead grass and fuel piles at least 100 feet away from buildings. She said it's difficult for firefighters to do a direct attack on grass fires, but keeping fire out of trees prevents fire from spreading to buildings.
"If you reduce fuels, you get nice little flames four to six inches spreading across your grass," Roesch said. "We can take care of that."
With layers upon layers of dead grass underneath this year's green-up, Roesch said the Caribou Hills fire carried a lot in dry grasses.
"A little wind hits the fire and goes so fast," she said.
There are three components to a wildfire, Roesch said. The first component is dead trees and fuel, which causes the fire to spread, and convective activity which sucks air from the outside. Embers, the third component, can fly two to three miles, causing spotting as it goes along.
"There were a lot of embers at Caribou Hills," she said, adding that in some cases, like the 1996 Miller's Reach fire which destroyed more than 400 homes, embers fly as far as four miles.
Roesch pointed out the huge swaths of red and orange spreading across the peninsula and said fire has burned only about 12 percent of the bark beetle-killed forest on the Kenai Peninsula.
In a phone call Thursday afternoon, Marvin Rude, mapping director at the Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Project, said about 1 million acres of dead standing timber on the Kenai Peninsula was left behind because of the bark beetle.
"That's how much we have out there standing right now," Rude said. "And that's in the entire borough."
During the question and answer session at the luncheon, Kenai City Councilman Barry Eldridge asked Roesch if the Division of Forestry had any plans to do prescribed burns to create a bigger firebreak.
"There are no plans to burn big swaths," Roesch said. She mentioned the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge's plans to conduct a prescribed burn near Lily Lake, but added that the state usually doesn't do prescribed burns. "It takes a lot to do it, to pull it off," she said.
Another chamber member asked if developers could do anything to help prevent wildfire. Roesch replied that developers could incorporate green safe zones, water supplies and bike paths in the layout of their subdivisions.
"That's a neat step," she said. "(Developers) could create hundreds of feet between a subdivision and a raging forest fire."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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