21 Sep 2009, 10:58am
The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Smoky summer stokes demands for firefighting changes by Interior Alaskans

By Jeff Richardson, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner September 18, 2009 [here]

FAIRBANKS — Following yet another smoky, inferno-filled summer, fire officials acknowledged on Thursday that it’s probably time to update the strategy for battling Interior Alaska blazes.

The state might begin considering a “smoke response plan” when air quality in the Interior becomes hazardous, said Chris Maisch, state forester with the Alaska Division of Forestry. He said more areas near Fairbanks also could be made a higher priority in the state’s fire management plan.

Maisch made the comments at a public meeting at the Alaska Division of Forestry warehouse, where officials gathered to discuss the controversial 2009 fire season. Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said he called the meeting after receiving numerous complaints about the “let it burn” status that most fires in Alaska are given.

About 40 people attended the meeting, which came after a summer that saw nearly 3 million acres of land burn in Alaska. The past six years have been the worst period for fires in recorded state history, with more than 16 million acres blackened.

The current fire protection plan, which was adopted in 1998, gives areas across the state one of four fire-protection designations. The vast majority of Alaska is given “limited” protection status, which calls for virtually no response.

Tom Irwin, the Commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, said it’s usually a sensible approach. Fires are a natural part of a changing ecosystem, and the state doesn’t have the personnel or money to battle every blaze that emerges during a busy season.

“The fact is, Alaska is going to burn no matter what resources we throw at it,” Irwin said.

But a frustratingly smoky season in Fairbanks has some residents clamoring for changes. While lives and personal property are taken into account when prioritizing fires, the effect of thick smoke on a region isn’t currently taken into consideration.

Niesje Steinkruger said she was frustrated by the fixation on acres burned each season, since it doesn’t indicate how people are affected by them. She lamented that a critical fire classification “seems to mean if my skin is burning, not if my lungs are burning and I have asthma and have to leave.”

Maisch said the fire plan might be shifted to adapt to those concerns. He said fire officials welcome public feedback, including the wishes of individual landowners who want to have the protection for their property upgraded. For example, Ahtna, a major Native landowner near Glennallen, will have more aggressive protection after making the request this year.

“The plan is meant to be a living document — not something we just did once and never modified,” Maisch said.

But state fire leaders made it clear they won’t be returning to the pre-1980 approach to fire management, when crews responded to virtually every blaze.

Maisch compared aggressive fire management to using a credit card — he said the short-term benefits eventually become long-term headaches.

“Interest builds up over time, just like fire fuels,” he said. “At some point, you’re going to have to pay the piper with an extended fire season.”

Fire officials said they’re also working to adapt to a changing environment, as climate change gradually makes summers drier, hotter and more flammable.

“We’re trying to keep up with it, but we’re having trouble right now,” said Tom Kurth, the Alaska Division of Forestry Chief of Fire and Aviation.

Several residents also said the state can improve its communication about fire danger, especially with blazes like the Hard Luck Creek Fire that approach residential areas.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said he was basically bound to his Murphy Dome home during the fire, and he was frustrated that updates seemed difficult to find. He said fire officials need to make community relations a higher priority, particularly when fires approach residential areas.

“If we’re going to continue to see what we saw these three years … it’s going to become a bigger and bigger problem,” he said.

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