Effective Tuesday, May 10, the State of Alaska Forestry Service has issued a burn suspension for the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island prohibiting lawn burning, the burning of brush piles and the use of burn barrels. High winds and a break in precipitation have created conditions unfavorable to fire control, officials say.
“Because of those two factors, the wind and low rain, a lot of our grasses that are pretty newly exposed after all the snow melted away, they’re becoming very dry, and the last couple days with the winds definitely makes for a hazardous situation if fires do escape,” said Alaska Division of Forestry’s Kenai / Kodiak Lead Prevention Technician Drew Anderson. “The purpose of burn suspensions is to prohibit those debris burns and burn barrels and lawn burns, just because it makes control pretty difficult when grass moistures get so low and windy conditions are forecasted. We’re not forecasted for much rain in the future, so it’s easier just to limit the fire starts.”
Anderson went on to say that the main cause of wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula is debris burning.
“We had such a quick warming, all the snowmelt, there’s no moisture left in the soils,” added Seward Fire Chief Clinton Crites. “The field moisture content is very low, and therefore we’re susceptible to wildfires.”
The suspension comes in the wake of Sunday afternoon’s Cooper Landing fire requiring a Forestry helicopter to fully extinguish. The call came Sunday afternoon around 4 p.m. notifying Cooper Landing Emergency Services (CLES) of smoke and a brush fire at approximately milepost 54 of the Sterling Highway.
“Protocol requires that Cooper Landing requests Forestry for a response on any off-highway incidents that aren’t readily accessible by us as a local volunteer fire department,” said CLES Chief Riley Shurtleff. “Given the nature of the area that it was in, a helicopter had been dispatched simultaneously to the department for both investigation and initial suppression efforts, based upon findings.”
Cooper Landing assisted the Forestry copter with manpower, off-road vehicles and water supply. Ultimately the fire was contained to a one-third acre radius, and the blaze was fully extinguished, with all crews returning to service by 8 p.m.
“In this case we were fortunate for the quick response of local Forestry crews,” Shurtleff said. “This is an example of a complete incident, and it serves as a reminder that this is a time for the public to take into consideration all of their own efforts in preventing similar situations from occurring.”
Though well-contained, the blaze calls to mind the destruction such fires can wreak if allowed to spread, coming on the eve of the three-year anniversary of a historic catastrophe, the Swan Lake Wildfire of 2019, which burned across 174,000 acres from June 5 until autumn, and endangered the entire Cooper Landing community.
“It was a devastating event that still lingers in the minds of all residents throughout the community today,” Shurtleff said. “Not the community nor the region can afford to endure another disaster, and it takes a part from everyone to prevent the same from occurring.”
Under the current suspension, small campfires under three feet in diameter and two feet in height are still permitted, but officials warn that cautionary measures should still be taken.
“Common sense and caution should dictate when those are appropriate,” Chief Crites said. “We’ve had up to 25 mile-per-hour winds in Seward lately. Even small campfires should be closely guarded, and have a means to extinguish them nearby.”
Anderson echoed the chief’s warning, adding that ideal conditions include good mineral soil surroundings and water nearby. He also urged campers to attend all fires until cool to the touch.
“If they’re not fully extinguished, that can rekindle and blow embers where you don’t want them,” he said. “Make sure they’re in a good location. Try to always just use the designated campsite areas with the nice metal rings that are in a good location. For those people who are out, since we finally do have nice weather, ATVs and UTVs and RVs, try to stay on designated trails because hot exhaust and dry grass don’t mix. Lots of things to look out for when we’re under these conditions.”
As to when the suspension might be lifted, Anderson said that because such determinations are made borough-wide, the ban may remain in place even if coastal areas receive sufficient precipitation.
“I wish it was an exact number or a percentage of an inch, where it would be lifted for sure, but I like to say just sufficient widespread moisture for the area would probably help with lifting the burn suspension,” he said. “It gets hard because I know Seward gets quite a bit more rain than the inland areas of the peninsula, and same with Homer and Kodiak normally, but we need to see widespread precipitation for all those areas I just mentioned for suspensions to be lifted.”
For more information contact the Alaska Division of Forestry’s Kenai / Kodiak Office at 907-260-4200.