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Fuel for the fire

Human activity, not lightning, leading cause of wildfire

Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2005

 

  A wildfire burns through trees along the shore of Skilak Lake in 1996. While this summer has featured more lightening than normal, most fires on the Kenai Peninsula are caused by humans, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. Photo by M. Scott Moon

A wildfire burns through trees along the shore of Skilak Lake in 1996. While this summer has featured more lightening than normal, most fires on the Kenai Peninsula are caused by humans, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Editor's note: The following story is the third in a series examining wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula. On Friday, the Clarion will look at spruce bark beetles.,

Dramatic they may be, but those lightning storms wowing Kenai Peninsula residents and visitors are far from the leading cause of wildland fires consuming peninsula forests and grasslands this summer.

Human error ignites many more fires than anything tossed our way by an angry sky, according to statistics compiled by the Alaska Division of Forestry.

The Forestry Division's Kenai-Kodiak area sees an average of 64 fires per year, said Sharon Roesch, state wildfire prevention officer.

"Generally, lightning accounts for 3 to 4 percent," she said. "Basically, most fires are human caused."

Over the past 15 years, 953 fires have been recorded in the Kenai-Kodiak area, but Kodiak typically sees a wildland fire only every three or four years. There have been none in 2005.

So far at least, 2005 is proving a below-average year for fires on the peninsula. There have been 52 — roughly half the 101 fires recorded in 1996. Nine of the past 15 years have seen more fires than 2005, including 1992, when there were 98, and 1993, when there were 96.

Only 42 fires in those 15 years are known to have been ignited by lightning strikes, a little more than 4 percent of the total.

Of the 953 fires in the Kenai-Kodiak area since 1991, 270 were listed as escaped controlled burns. These included 158 actually cataloged as "controlled burns," plus 36 caused by trash burning, 42 from land clearing, 29 from meadow or field burns, and five from "permitted" burns that also escaped.

All of those can be credited to people. Add to those the 209 fires started from campfires, the 125 caused by playing with matches, the 24 ignited by fireworks, and the 103 listed as being caused by "miscellaneous-structure" fires, and it becomes clear most fires are "definitely preventable," Roesch noted.

A bit more caution when dousing campfires could prevent many forest fires, Roesch said. People don't always choose good sites for their campfires and don't provide for a mineral soil fire break. Then they leave, believing they've done enough by dumping water on the coals. That may not be enough, Roesch said, especially if fire has gotten into the duff where embers can smolder for long periods of time — even an entire winter.

"Sparks can break out in the spring," Roesch said.

This is an atypical year when it comes to lightning-caused fires. Between 1991 and 2004, an average of just over 1 fire per year was linked to electrical discharge. This year there have been 25, clearly an anomaly that may have casual observers blaming storms, especially considering the Fox Creek Fire currently burning in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is so visible. Started by lightning, it has consumed more than 31,000 acres so far.

The warm summers of the past few years likely have contributed to the generally dry conditions that can cause a fire to spread rapidly. The unusual level of thunderstorm activity hasn't helped. But by and large, the root causes of wildland fires are not changing, Roesch said.

One thing that has had an influence is the spruce bark beetle. With huge swaths of the Kenai Peninsula forest dead or dying, the loss of the canopy has exposed more ground surface to sunlight and contributed to the spread of grasses, essentially creating "bigger windows of ignitability," Roesch said.

Many fires occurring on the peninsula over the past half-century burned uninhabited areas like the refuge, and firefighters allowed them to consume more acreage than they might have had homes been in their paths. That was the case, for instance, with 2005 fires like those at Fox Creek and King Country Creek, as well as past fires such as Glacier Creek (2004), Hidden Creek (1996), Swanson River Road (1969) and Skilak Lake (1947), Roesch said.

"Because they were not immediately threatening structures portions of the fires were allowed to burn to meet firebreaks established at man-made and natural barriers," she said.

That there have not been more fires caused by people during this hot and dry weather might be attributable to a high degree of public awareness that the threat of wildland fire is high, Roesch said. Folks have been very patient with burn bans and have been taking extra precautions when they can burn, she said.

What the current weather trend may hold in store is anyone's guess right now, Roesch said.



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