The U.S. Army Alaska today claimed released the results of two investigations into the cause of the Stuart Creek 2 Wildfire that burned more than 87,000 acres and threatened a small mushing community just outside Fairbanks this summer.
Investigations conclude that artillery training caused the fire. As a result, the army will change its training procedures.
In July, Fort Wainwright Garrison Commander Colonel Ron Johnson told Two Rivers Community members the Army was responsible for igniting the Stuart Creek 2 Wildfire on June 19.
“They allowed the training to occur, it was artillery training. It did start a fire. So, it was monitored, smoked, up hit it again and then when the weather changed, it just flared up and now we got what we got,” Johnson said at a community meeting.
Days after his admission, the Army back-tracked. Colonel Johnson has since announced his plans for retirement.
Lieutenant Colonel Allen Brown is U.S. Army Alaska’s Chief of Public Affairs. He says the situation at the time was much too fluid to make that kind of determination.
“We had to rule out lightning strikes, we had to rule out other human causes. But mostly we just had to look at all the data and make sure we were making the right call,” he said.
An investigation into the cause of the blaze indicates that the Army was in fact responsible.
“I know that there’s been some frustration in the community and I think justifiable so,” Brown said. “We live there too and we’re just as much a part of the community as anybody else and we want to do things as safely as we can and we don’t want to put anybody else unnecessarily at risk.”
The 87,000 acre fire forced the evacuation of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley residents and their animals and livestock.
One of those residents is Melinda Shore. She and her 13 sled dogs left their home twice as the blaze edged within miles of her property.
“Well, I was really appreciative of the way Colonel Johnson came forward at the meeting and then there was that little bit of tail covering – not a little bit, there was considerable tail covering afterwards,” she said. “But he seemed genuinely concerned about what had happened and taking responsibility for it. That’s a good thing. Certainly the Army contributes a lot to the community here and they’re an important part of the community, but this was just such a massive screw up.”
A second Army investigation reveals what John Pennell calls “systemic problems” with Army training procedures.
Pennell is the Chief of Media Relations for U.S. Army Alaska.
“During an extreme fire warning, only the USARAK G3 who’s the Chief of Operations can approve a waiver for training to continue,” Pennel said. “But in this case that was delegated down to an installation range officer instead.”
The Installation Range Officer was based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage when the decision to continue training was made.
Pennell says explosive artillery was also used during the mission.
“During an extreme fire warning, one of the munitions that the regulation tells us to not use is high explosives and those were what were used on the 19th that caused the initial ignition,” Pennell said.
From now on, the only person who can approve live fire training when fire danger is extreme is Fort Wainwright’s Deputy Commanding Officer.
The Army plans to acquire non-explosive artillery rounds at times when Red Flag Warnings are issued.
Allen Brown says they will also build on a partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to monitor fire prone areas.
“Obviously, the fire and the results and everything adds a lot more validity to expanding that relationship,” Brown said.
The Army typically plans training mission at least a year in advance.
Brown says new procedures will apply for any training set to take place over the Yukon Training Area next summer.