Working the burn

Refuge fire means using Mother Nature, not machines

Posted: Sunday, July 24, 2005


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  Luke Smith of the Idaho Panhandle Hot Shot crew rests battered hands on his hard hat. Several of the elite Hot Shot crews are working the Fox Creek fire. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Sepa Nicholas carries a spruce tree trunk away from a field break he and other firefighters from the Kenai/Kodiak area office of the Division of Forestry were building for the Fox Creek Fire southwest of Tustumena Lake late last week. Using nothing other than hand tools, crews have cleared a line about a mile and a half long through heavily wooded, hilly and often marshy country.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Editor's note: This is the final story in a series examining wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula.

Specialized fire crews working the perimeter of the Fox Creek Fire must hack and cut their way through remote forest by hand — and make it look like they weren't even there. That's because managing a fire is much different from fighting a fire, especially one contained within a national wildlife refuge.

The 144 men and women working the containment lines around the outside of the 25,000-acre fire adhere to minimum impact suppression tactics (or MIST, for short), a type of low-impact work that aims to preserve an area's natural characteristics.

"When we're done, we don't want to leave any sore of suppression legacy," said Tom Kurth, the fire's incident commander.


Firefighters board a helicopter at their tent camp at the end of Oil Well Road for the ride into their work area at the Fox Creek fire. The fires remote location on a national wildlife refuge makes choppers a necessity for moving people and supplies.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Kurth explained that because the fire is burning on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the teams working the fire are taking extra steps to protect the environment. That means doing things like cutting stumps close to the ground and covering them with moss and scattering slash materials.

It also means more efficient line-cutting tools — like bulldozers — can't be brought in.

The area where the fire is burning is a mix of mostly black spruce, beetle-killed spruce and a few mixed hardwoods. Managers must try to use what Mother Nature gives them.

To ensure that the fire remains contained within a set perimeter — in this case a line that runs roughly south from Tustumena Lake along the refuge boundary then east just north of the Caribou Hills — crews have been cutting and burning a line between natural fire breaks, said Tom Kempton, the fire's information officer.


Sepa Nicholas carries pulaski tools up a hill as other members of a firefighting team from Soldotna clear the field break they were building on the Fox Creek fires western perimiter.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We're doing the best job we can about linking natural features such as lakes and creeks," Kempton said.

Nature has definitely played its part in helping to contain the fire within a safe area. In addition to Tustumena Lake to the north, a 1996 burn near Crooked Creek formed a barrier to the west, while the creek itself continued the line south. Managers were able to use these features to their advantage in the fire's early days, making those lines stronger and herding the fire into a manageable perimeter.

The Crooked Creek burn area in particular helped out and Kempton said the Fox Creek Fire will, in turn, provide another swath of fire break in the future.

"That (Crooked Creek) fire acted as an effective barrier," he said. "And this one will eventually do the same thing."

In addition to helping limit future forest fires, the burn will have the added benefit of creating great habitat for young hardwood trees — and the hungry moose that follow them — in years to come.


Daniel Whisler, Nate Bertels, Zach Fleming and Sven Haltmann cut up a tree that had to be felled during the construction of a field break. The four are from the Pioneer Peak Hot Shots, an elite firefighting squad from Palmer. Other Hot Shot crews are working the fire as well.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Because of high humidity and unfavorable west winds, managers have not been able to burn as much fuel at the fire's outer edges as they'd like. The best way to contain a fire is to starve it of fuel, and ideally managers would like to be able to burn an area further south of the current line. That would better protect recreational cabins in the Caribou Hills in case the fire — which is currently staying put — decides to run.

"We'd like to deny the fire fuels for it to advance," Kempton said.

Barring a change in the weather, however, the only thing crews can do is preliminary work in preparation for any possible burn back into the main fire.

"All of our actions are based on current and expected weather," Kurth said.


Chain saws, pulaski tools and bear guns are tools of the trade for firefighters on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

That means the crews on the ground must continue cutting trees, laying moss on top and doing the gritty work out in the woods.

"They're improving the hand line right now," Kurth said. "There's always something to do."

In addition to cutting lines along streams and between lakes, crews also lay down hoses to strengthen the lines. Although there's fewer fire workers on the ground now — some have been pulled off to work other fires in the state and Outsides — the hoses crews lay down will remain in place.

If the fire moves, the hoses keep the line strong. If the wind shifts to the northeast, those lines become very important to keeping controlled burns headed in the right direction. Managers aren't overly concerned with the fire taking off and threatening homes and property, but they're always aware of the possibility a fire could turn the wrong way.


Daniel Koveikis of the Pioneer Peak Type I crew from Palmer catches up on dental hygiene while waiting for his ride to work to land. He and other firefighters working the Fox Creek fire stay in a tent camp at the end of Oil Well Road east of Ninilchik. Some have been there for more than a week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"The conditions can change very rapidly in the forest," Kempton said.

That's not likely to happen with the Fox Creek Fire. With crews on the ground slowly creating fire lines around the perimeter, the fire should eventually burn itself out. But it's not easy work, especially when you've got to leave as small a mark on the wild as possible.

"It's definitely labor intensive," Kurth said of the field work.

If all the hard work pays off, however, the Fox Creek Fire will be a prime example of how fire managers can combine brute labor with natural tools to build a healthy forest — without harming what's already there.


Jon Glover carries fire hose from a chopper to the field break others were building on the fires western perimeter. About a mile and a half of the hose had to be distributed by hand.

Photo by M. Scott Moon


Luke Smith of the Idaho Panhandle Hot Shot crew rests battered hands on his hard hat. Several of the elite Hot Shot crews are working the Fox Creek fire.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

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