By Jenny Neyman
Be warned, Kenai Peninsula — although 306 square miles of forest have burned so far in the Funny River Fire, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods of fire danger yet. Fire season is far from over, although the peninsula has already seen as many wildfires from April 1 to June 16 as it typically does in an entire season.
By June 16 last year the Kenai-Kodiak Area had seen 35 fire incidents, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. This Monday, the sign outside the Forestry office in Soldotna read 76 fires. Last year, the area had 78 wildfires, total, for the entire standard season, from April 1 through Aug. 31 (though fires occasionally happen later in the year, too).
“The last time we had anywhere close to 78 incidents, which is what we had last year, was back in 1997, when we had 80 fires. The year before (1996), we had 101 fires. And we’re on course to be above 100 fires this year. So that gives you a little bit of an idea how much activity we could be looking at. We got some rain today, but it only takes three days to dry out and we’re back into it. We’re definitely on course for a big year,” said Howie Kent, Kenai-Kodiak Area fire management officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, on Monday.
Rain is a welcome occurrence for Forestry in a year like this.
“My guys are tired. We’ve literally put in a full season already and we’ve got a long way to go. This rain is nice to see. It gives us time to get our guys rested and get our gear refurbished and ready for the next round. And we’re ready to go, but it’s good to see the rain,” Kent said.
The Funny River Fire, the second largest recorded on the peninsula, required a massive outlay of personnel, equipment, time and money to combat and eventually contain from threatening structures and private property — at last count, about $10.8 million in costs. But it certainly hasn’t been the only incident to which Kenai-Kodiak Area firefighters have responded this season. Of the 76 so far in the Kenai-Kodiak Area, all but five incidents have been on the Kenai Peninsula. Nor do fires across Cook Inlet count to that total.
Luckily, no others have been a severe-enough threat to safety or structures to steal much limelight from the Funny River Fire, but with conditions this year being so ripe for combustion, it wouldn’t take much for a little smoke to lead to a big fire.
A mild winter with low-to-no snowpack and little moisture this spring created a dangerously dry situation on the peninsula, especially when paired with warm, sunny, windy days.
“The dead brown grasses are up, they’re not matted down, which gives a little more fire potential for a little more severe-burning, hotter fire because it would be standing up. It won’t last as long but will burn up a lot quicker and a lot hotter,” said Andy Alexandrou, Forestry public information officer, in Soldotna.
Fire conditions this spring were about two weeks ahead of schedule, Kent estimates. And even after rain, it only takes a few days of warmth and wind to dry things back out again. At that point, it doesn’t take much to spark a blaze. Mother Nature can do it, though that’s rare on the peninsula — only two of the area’s 78 fires last year were caused by lightning. Vastly more likely is a human cause.
“Ninety-five percent or more of ours are human caused,” Kent said.
That can mean a host of things, from more “oops” situations, like a tree falling onto a power line (power lines are manmade, after all) and sparking, or a lawnmower sparking off a rock, as was the case with a 1-acre fire Forestry extinguished last week near Nikolaevsk.
More often, though, it’s human fires gone awry — meaning campfires and debris burns that are abandoned and/or not properly extinguished.
“Folks walk away from their debris pile and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know the wind was going to come up and take my fire away from me.’ We get that quite a bit,” Kent said.
Perhaps the silver lining of the peninsula’s prevalence of human-caused wildfires is their preventability. Educate to eradicate fire risk and extinguish fires before they start.
That’s why Forestry devotes significant time and effort to outreach, disseminating fire safety information, staffing booths at community events and functions, giving school tours, putting ads in a statewide magazine and the like. Kent said he figures they spread their safety message to about 250,000 people on or coming to the peninsula a year through Forestry’s outreach and education efforts.
But many of those people are new each year, given how many visitors the peninsula sees in the summer.
“We get a lot of out-of-state, out-of-area people who come to the peninsula, even folks from Anchorage that we interface with from time to time, who don’t fully put their campfires out. They don’t take that extra time to make sure they put their fires out before they leave,” he said.
Education toward residents is more of a lasting investment, especially in the wake of a big blaze, such as the Funny River Fire. A Forestry fire prevention team was available to meet with residents and disseminate FireWise program information during and after the blaze, and has found much more interest than usual, Kent said. On average at an event like the Home Show, Forestry representatives will get about 10 people signing up for the FireWise program, he said. In just one meeting in the Funny River community, where residents were asked to evacuate at one point during the fire, the team signed up 47 people.
“A fire like this certainly raises people’s awareness about fire and how big it can become — bigger than all of us. It really is up to the homeowners individually to take the time to FireWise their place. We can give them all the information and help them in that way, give them the specs and things like that, but ultimately it is their responsibility to be fire ready and fire wise,” Kent said.
That means not only taking care of one’s own place, observing burn bans when announced and following the rules of burn permits and campfire safety, but being willing to speak up when others don’t. “If they see something, please report it,” Kent said, by calling 911, the local Forestry office (on the central peninsula, that’s 260-4200) or 800-237-3633.
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