It’s been hot and dry for the past few weeks, and red flag warnings for extreme fire danger are in effect in many parts of the state. For over a decade, the Anchorage Fire Department has been running Firewise, a national effort to help homeowners improve their property’s chances of surviving a wildfire. But without additional grant funding, that program could end after this summer.
“Hello! Good morning. Jamie? Yes. And Justin, right? Hi. Pleased to meet you.”
It’s a sunny June morning and Anchorage Fire Department Forester John See is beginning a fire safety assessment. We’re at Justin and Jamie Freeman’s house in south Anchorage, not far from Rabbit Creek. There are a number of young hardwoods in the yard and plenty of fresh, damp grass. But the landscape here is drier than it seems. With so many Anchorage homes built within the boreal forest, a hot summer with little rain could turn into a big threat to lives and property.
“Some things I see in the front here that look real good,” See says, “are the rock work, that’s a real impervious fire-resistant surface, and ferns, plants that are high moisture content. That’s a real good thing to see.”
These days, with fire danger warnings across Alaska, See says it’s important to recognize how susceptible Anchorage is to wildfire. When the combination of high winds and hot temperatures hit the city, a fire could engulf the forested hillside in an instant.
“I actually did modeling, computer modeling of firespread on the hillside,” See says, “and we end up with a really major fire in one day with these conditions we’re having right now.”
See wants to help homeowners protect against that threat. He says the Firewise program got started here partly thanks to the spruce bark beetle outbreak over the past few decades that turned millions of acres of white spruce into kindling.
“There was a need to work with landowners to make their property Firewise so it could withstand a wildland fire. Basically, that’s what the Firewise program is about. It’s creating that defensible space around your home.”
This morning, Justin and Jamie Freeman’s home earns an A or A-minus on the Firewise scale. Still, See says, there’s room for improvement. Sparks and embers can travel up to several miles ahead of a wildfire’s core, so some of the biggest dangers come from the smallest things.
“Just the little leaves, right here, you can find them around everybody’s home, little patches of leaves,” he says.
Or a wooden fence. See tells the Freemans that just propping open their wooden gate in the case of an evacuation could stop a fire from reaching their home.
“Open your gate, block it open so the fire can’t travel though,” See says.
“That’s such an easy thing when you say that,” says Justin Freeman. “You think, gosh, why didn’t I think of that? But I don’t know that I would’ve and we would’ve just left.”
The Freemans signed up for the Firewise inspection online, and overall, they say that it was mostly for peace of mind.
“There’s always that concern that if there were a fire on the hillside, Anchorage has a very big problem,” Justin Freeman says. “And we’re at least on the edge if not the middle of that.”
It was also for some financial help. A Firewise home inspection is free. And this summer, a cost share tree removal program will pay homeowners 70 percent of the cost of removing problem trees, up to $2,000 per acre.
But home owners may not be able to take advantage of the program much longer. The Firewise program could be out of funding by December. And especially if temperatures keep rising, that’s not good news.
“We all like to think it can’t happen here in Anchorage and it can,” See says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week, so we need to prepare.”
The Anchorage Fire Department is working on securing additional grants to keep the program going. See says they should know more by September, and in the meantime, residents should stay alert.