Prevention, luck prevent major blazes

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2003

Despite a recent flare-up, the Kenai Peninsula seems to have escaped the summer fire season without getting badly burned.

With fire crews still keeping an eye on the Pipe Creek fire near Skilak Lake, an official with the Alaska Division of Forestry said Friday a mixture of good luck and good sense has kept fires to a minimum this season.

"I guess you can always figure luck as part of the equation," Tom Marok, logistics coordinator for the division, said Friday.

The Pipe Creek fire had not been contained, though Marok said it does not threaten any structures, and crews were expected to leave the area over the weekend. He said the state is continuing to let the fire, which has been burning since mid-June, take its natural course.

"We're not making an attempt to contain it," he said.

The fire is burning on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land. According to refuge Deputy Manager Jim Hall, the fire has helped clear more than 450 acres of moose habitat.

"It's still a good fire," he said, noting no structures were burned and the fire reached only to within a half mile of the Cottonwood Creek Lodge. He said the fire took managers a bit by surprise, but it was nothing crews couldn't handle.

"It was doing exactly what we wanted it to do until (last) Sunday evening," he said.

It was then the fire moved to within one mile of the lodge, causing firefighters to be dispatched to the area.

Hall said those crews did an excellent job of keeping the fire from threatening the lodge.

"We've got a very good response team," he said.

Apart from the Pipe Creek fire, the summer of 2003 has been quite uneventful on the peninsula. Only one other fire of any size, a 150-acre blaze in Anchor Point, caused managers much concern.

Forestry's Marok said this season has seen two major factors combine to keep fires to a minimum: prevention and Mother Nature.

First, he said, the word seems to be spreading among area residents that fire is nothing to play around with.

"I've seen a big change in the awareness of people," he said.

He credited the ongoing education programs regarding the peninsula's bark beetle epidemic as one visible example of people's heightened awareness. Marok said as more people learn that the dry, dead trees present a major hazard, more people tend to be cautious with fire.

"I think that is helping get the point across," he said.

Officials with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge agreed that this fire season has benefited from both prevention and response efforts. Doug Newbold, fire management coordinator for the refuge, said this season has been unusually fire-free for the refuge.

"From the refuge standpoint, it's been a lower than average number of forest fires," he said.

Newbold was also quick to point to prevention measures for averting any wild land disasters on the refuge. He echoed Marok's sentiment that education measures are starting to pay off.

"Everyone is now aware of the beetle kill and fuels problem," he said. However, Newbold said the battle to educate people on the dangers of forest fires is ongoing.

"We've just got to keep hammering people on that," he said.

Despite spending countless hours on prevention and education, Marok said most of the small fires the state dealt with this summer were the result of human behavior. He cited kids playing with matches, uncontrolled burn piles and unattended campfires as three major behaviors which can lead to forest fires.

Also keeping fires to a minimum this season was a lack of extreme weather conditions. Although the peninsula saw very warm, dry weather throughout July, Marok said there was one element missing which could have caused some major fire danger.

"Another factor that comes into play is we did not have long periods of sustained high winds," he said.

Had the wind kicked up, Marok said he believes the peninsula may have seen a much worse fire season.

"We could have had a catastrophe," he said.

Despite the quiet fire conditions this year, Marok said the peninsula is still a dry, combustible place during fire season. He said he hopes the state will continue to fund fire prevention and response efforts in order to prevent major wildfires.

"We have an aggressive initial attack program, and our firefighters are highly trained," he said. "But (funding) is a real delicate thing."

Newbold agreed that adequate funding at both the state and federal level is a major factor in keeping the peninsula from experiencing any major fires.

"I like to think there's two reasons for that. Money and time spent on prevention," he said.

Newbold said he's been pleased with how this fire season has gone, and declared the season basically over for the summer. Although it's always possible that a fire could spring up, recent rains have made the fire danger drop dramatically across most of the peninsula.

However, Newbold stressed that some areas near the Kenai Mountains may not be out of the woods just yet.

"There's a natural rain shadow there, and that area doesn't get a lot of rain," he said. "(But) I think the fire season is over for most of the peninsula."

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