For Alaska wildland fire crews, cutting firebreaks serves as training while reducing hazardous fuels

Seven people in firefighting gear taking notes in an open field
Members of the Gannett Glacier Fire Crew takes notes during a fire training scenario near Palmer on Thursday, April 29, 2018. (Photo by Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s wildland firefighters have been completing their annual training and, with help from a state grant, strategically cutting and removing trees, many of them killed by spruce beetles.

That hazardous fuels reduction comes as long-term forecasts signal a “normal” fire season ahead, with about a million acres expected to burn — somewhere between the sizes of Rhode Island and Delaware.

Norm McDonald, the state Division of Forestry’s Chief of Fire and Aviation, said the prep work cutting fire breaks is helpful and likely to save money in the long run. But McDonald said all it would take to go from an average fire season to a huge one is some hot, dry weather and a lightning strike — or the careless burning of some brush or a campfire.

Listen here:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Norm McDonald: If you look historically at our most devastating fires, they are in the urban interface, and they have been human caused. So these are all fires that in theory should be preventable. So I think just the awareness that any time you do an activity that includes either burning or open flame in the wildland setting, just use extreme caution, especially this time of year, May, as we have that dry grass and these windy conditions.

It does not take much of a start for a fire to get out of control, past where a homeowner can suppress it on their own. And those are our most expensive fires. Those take the most resources, the most firefighters and aircraft. So we really ask people to use extreme caution, whether that’s their typical Alaskan outdoor activities like camping and hunting. When you’re doing your land clearing, look at other options instead of burning in May and June when it’s dry and windy. Save that burning for fall when we get our wetter conditions or that first snow in October. That is something that we really try to encourage people to do.

Casey Grove: Gotcha, yeah. Nobody wants something getting away from them like that and causing damage to their neighborhood or anybody else.

Norm McDonald: No, and people are always surprised at how quickly — they have a burn barrel or a small fire or a barbecue in the grass — how quickly a fire starts to something that they can’t control with what they have on site. And then the fire department shows up and the helicopters show up. Every person that we go through with that always says the same thing, “I had no idea how quickly that fire could spread.” Just something to be aware of, for anybody doing that type of activity this summer.

Casey Grove: There’s a lot there that you can’t really control, like the weather or where lightning strikes and things like that. And you can get the word out about how residents should be behaving to be fire safe. But I guess there are a few things that you can do ahead of time to prepare. And one of those things is what you call hazardous fuels reduction, right? And I guess that’s a big push this year, it sounds like.

Norm McDonald: Yeah, and it’s nothing new to the division. We’ve been doing fuel breaks and the hazardous fuels reduction, you know, going back to the mid ’90s. And that really started with the first beetle epidemic we had going back to ’95, ’96, that timeframe. And so it’s something we’ve used and have had success with. What’s changed this year is we have, for the first time, last year we received state dollars. We’ve relied entirely on federal grants up until last year, for fuels reduction.

With this administration, public safety is a big part of their push, and we received a $10 million capital improvement project, just earmarked for fuels reduction. And so that gives us state funds to leverage more federal funds, which this year come to us through the infrastructure bill. So we are really in a good place when it comes to actually funding for this work.

And now building capacity to meet the requirements of that work is really where we’re at now. Yeah, it’s a really exciting time as far as opportunities to provide a better service and public safety and develop these fuel breaks around some of our critical infrastructure and communities.

Casey Grove: Well, what are fire crews doing right now, other than reducing fuels and cutting fire breaks? What are they doing to get ready for the coming fire season?

Norm McDonald: So our Division of Forestry crews, they come back starting about mid-April, and they do what we call our 80 hours or two weeks of training. And that’s their physical fitness, that’s their fire readiness. They’re getting their gear up and ready.

They’re ready to go May 1, so our crews are staffed. They’re ready to respond. We have them pre-positioned around the state, including Kenai and the Mat-Su Valley. The Fairbanks crew is down in Kenai, because snow still on the ground means fire season is a couple weeks behind. So we have them pre-positioned to where they’re available to do the most good and in a short order.

But while they’re not assigned to fires, they’re doing this fuels reduction work. So this is really good preseason work, and that kind of crossover training for a lot of the similar work they do when there’s a wildland fire. And that’s running chainsaws and clearing those fire breaks is very similar to what it looks like on the fire line, as it is when they’re building a fuel break ahead of the fire. So they’re engaged with that work and they’re ready and they’re pre-positioned and ready to go, should they be needed anyplace in the state.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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