New suppression strategy slams ‘Gate’ shut on summer fire

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, December 16, 2005

Last week in this column I explained a new national wildland fire management strategy for natural (lightning) ignitions called wildland fire use (WFU). Today I’ll tell you how the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge used this strategy to successfully manage two large wildfires this year.

Of the 12 lightning fires on the refuge in 2005, five started in designated wilderness areas but only two were managed as WFU fires: the 1,000-acre Irish Channel Fire and the 26,300-acre Fox Creek Fire. Both fires started in remote wilderness areas, where values at risk were at least somewhat minimized.

The three wilderness lightning fires that were suppressed included the 10,300-acre King County Creek Fire, the 0.2-acre Brown’s Lake Fire and the 13.5-acre Moose Lake Fire. The first two were suppressed because of the risk to communities (Funny River and Sterling), the third was suppressed because it threatened to overrun the Moose Research Center.

The decision to manage the Irish Channel Fire under the WFU strategy was a relatively simple one for refuge manager Robin West. A lightning storm on July 6 ignited several fires on the peninsula, including a fire at the east end of Skilak Lake on a rocky knob south of Lucas Island. Surrounded by natural barriers (Skilak Lake to the north, the braided glacial Skilak River to the east, alpine vegetation to the south and the 2003 Pipe Creek Fire scar to the west), the Irish Channel Fire essentially had nowhere to go.

The resource management objectives identified for Irish Channel were to allow the fire to play its natural ecological role and to protect wilderness values while ensuring public and firefighter safety. In all, the fire burned for three months, consuming about 1,000 acres of mountain hemlock and spruce forest in the Andrew Simons Wilderness Unit. The only costs attributed to the management of the Irish Channel Fire were for planning and surveillance.

The decision to manage the Fox Creek Fire under WFU was not nearly so simple. The Fox Creek Fire was ignited by lightning sometime on or before July 11, when it was first discovered burning in remote wilderness, in black spruce and beetle-killed white spruce south of Big Bay, which is about midway along the southwest shore of Tustumena Lake.

And although there were impenetrable natural barriers to the north (Tustumena Lake) and the east (the Kenai Mountains), and substantial vegetation barriers to the northwest (the 1996 Crooked Creek Fire scar) and southwest (the Caribou Hills), the fire was within one of the largest continuous fuelbeds on the Kenai Peninsula — about 125,000 acres of beetle-killed white spruce and live black spruce. And there was one potential route of escape for the fire if it decided to burn west across the Nikolai and Crooked Creek drainages. This doorway to the west became known as the “Gate.”

Because of the fire’s potential to get very large and possibly threaten structures in the Ninilchik Forties/Caribou Hills (if it got through the “Gate”) and because it could last for two or three months, an Alaskan Type-2 Incident Management Team was ordered to help us manage the incident. But during the situation analysis, when the land manager must decide whether to suppress a lightning fire or manage it for resource benefits, perhaps the one factor that tipped the scales toward WFU was named Mary Kwart.

Mary is the Assistant Regional Fire Management Coordinator and Wildland-Urban Interface Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. She is a fully qualified and experienced Fire Use Manager (FUMA), and it just so happened that she was in Soldotna (helping us manage the Irish Channel WFU Fire) when Fox Creek started. Without a qualified FUMA, we could not have managed the fire as WFU, and the chances were slim we could order a FUMA to be part of the incident management team in a timely manner.

Still, even with Mary on board, I’m not sure Robin slept much during the first several days of the Fox Creek Fire. I know I didn’t. When the smoke finally cleared, the fire had burned about 26,300 acres of black spruce and beetle-kill, making it the largest wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula since 1969. But, I’m happy to report that all of the natural barriers held, no firefighters were injured and no structures were lost. Even the historic Big Bay Cabin was saved from almost certain destruction, if not for the valiant efforts of the refuge fire crew under the expert leadership of Assistant Fire Management Officer Dianne MacLean.

The only negative incident during the successful management of the Fox Creek Fire occurred when the large smoke column from the fire collapsed on Anchorage for about six hours, making some folks very unhappy. The good news is that no injuries or illnesses resulted from the smoke event.

Less than a $1 million were spent managing the Fox Creek WFU Fire. By contrast, suppression costs for the King County Creek Fire, a fire less than half the size of Fox Creek, amounted to nearly $4 million.

The lightning we experienced in 2005 and the number of lightning fires that occurred are unprecedented, at least here on the Kenai. But if it is true that lightning fires are on the increase, then it is my hope that the wildland fire use strategy will always be in our fire management toolbox.

Doug Newbould has lived and worked on the Kenai Peninsula since 1991 and has been the Fire Management Officer at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since 1999.

For more information about the refuge or to view past Refuge Notebook articles, visit the refuge Web site at or visit headquarters in Soldotna on Ski Hill Road.

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