Rain slightly lowers peninsula's fire danger

Posted: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

While wildfires continue to rage through the interior of the state, fire danger on the Kenai Peninsula has been downgraded from extreme to high, an area fire official said Tuesday.

Light rain over the weekend dampened the fire danger on the peninsula, said Tammy Westover, fire prevention officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry in Soldotna. However, the small amount of precipitation was not enough to penetrate the protected areas beneath trees or saturate the duff of dry grass and organic matter that can cover the ground many inches deep, she said.

"We're still in high fire danger," Westover said. "It wouldn't take but one day of sunshine and wind to dry (the ground fuels) out, and we'd be back where we were."

Although cloud bursts have poured down rain for short periods in some areas over the past few days, the total accumulation of rain has been much less than an inch in most regions.

"It takes several inches (of rain) to penetrate that duff layer to bring the fire danger down," Westover said.

The light rain was enough for the Division of Forestry to lift the burning permit suspension Sunday on small fires. Fires three-feet by three-feet or smaller and fires in burn barrels with metal screens are allowed with a permit. All fires must be built on dirt, sand or gravel, and all debris must be cleared to create a wide ring around the fire and provide a fire break of bare soil, Westover said Tuesday.

There have been 43 wildfires on the peninsula so far this season, which is less than normal, according to Westover. Twenty resulted from burn piles, 18 from campfires, one from lightning and the cause of four are unknown.

The only one of the fires that reached any size was the Kenai River Trail Fire, which broke out July 5 and burned about 50 acres along the Kenai River canyon. Firefighters got the fire under control in a few days with the help of air tankers and helicopters, which dropped belly and bucket-loads of water on the blaze.

Personnel have been demobilized from the fire, but officials are monitoring the burn to make sure it's completely out.

Michael Tilly, assistant chief of the Kenai Fire Department, credits the relatively low number of brush fires this season, both within Kenai city limits and on the peninsula as a whole, to public awareness.

In general, the public obeys the burn permit suspensions issued by the state and is careful when burning is allowed, he said.

"(Fire prevention) comes down to public awareness and people being cautious with open burning," Tilly said. "I think the lack of calls and the lack of brush fires can probably be credited to the community."

Fires that have started on the peninsula haven't gotten very far due to an "aggressive response" by state fire officials, Tilly said.

For example, firefighters responded quickly to smoke reported last week in the Caribou Hills off Lookout Trail. A crew from Fairbanks that had come down to assist with the Kenai River Trail Fire soon arrived by helicopter and kept the burn area to well under an acre, according to Westover.

Gary Hale, fire marshal for Central Emergency Services, agreed that public awareness of fire safety and an aggressive response by firefighters are partly responsible for keeping the number of wildfires on the peninsula down and under control. But he also noted that, unlike the Interior, few fires on the peninsula are caused by Mother Nature.

"We've been real fortunate that down here we don't have near the lighting they have in the northern areas," he said.

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