2015 will likely be a year with higher than usual fire risk on the peninsula.
Paul Pellegrini is a fire prevention officer with the Division of Forestry for the Kenai/Kodiak region.
He says conditions this year are reminiscent of last year, before the Funny River fire, and 2005, the year of the Tracy Avenue fire out East End Road.
“What that means for us is that there wasn’t enough snow to compact the cured grasses and that’s a big difference. If the grasses are on the ground and compacted, they burn differently than if they’re standing up. And right now, they’re high and dry.”
Pellegrini says there’s lots of fuel for wildfires, but grasses are some of the most dangerous.
“I fought fire for the State of California and it was all about these really fast-moving grass fires. And [on] the Kenai that’s a recent phenomenon. It’s maybe 10 or 15 years old, where these grasses have pushed in where the forest used to be.”
The changing landscape is due in part to the mass beetle kill that in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the Division of Forestry’s website, since the mid 1970s, Spruce bark beetles have killed mature spruce trees on more than a million acres of land here. That’s about half of the Peninsula’s total forested land.
“Our forest has been falling on the ground. Some of it is still standing up and dead and some of it is alive. But that dead and downed component that we can’t see very well, it’s still laying on the ground and it’s got grass all around it because when that canopy went away, the sun hit our landscape and that’s where all this grass came from.”
Pellegrini says that makes it even more important for residents to be very careful managing fires, especially during hot, dry seasons.
“The majority of fires on the Kenai are human-caused. The majority of human-caused fires are started by debris burning- people having open burns usually on their property, in their backyard, let’s say, where they’re cleaning up branches and woody debris. Most of those fires that we lose- those debris fires- they escape because the folks didn’t follow the guidelines on their burn permit.”
Burn permits are required for open burning from April 1st through August 31st and are subject to burn suspensions and closures.
Pellegrini says regardless of whether or not people plan on burning, they should practice Firewise. That includes clearing dry and dead brush within 30 feet of a house, and not storing firewood and other flammable items underneath decks or patios, among other things.
And he says, always think twice and take precautions before setting any type of fire.
“It’s still risky. Every time you choose to light a fire, whether it’s for a burn barrel or an open burn or even a camp fire, there’s a chance that the wind changes or you didn’t anticipate an event that happens and some ember cast from your fire ignites nearby grasses and you’re going to have a wildfire.”
Information on burn permits and Firewise tips are available on the Division of Forestry’s website,forestry.alaska.gov/burn.