Story last updated at 12:46 p.m. Thursday, May 2, 2002

Springtime burns get out of hand
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Burning slash piles lit by logging contractors during calm, foggy conditions Sunday morning spread into surrounding logging debris as the wind picked up in the afternoon, prompting firefighters from Homer to Palmer to jump into action.

The overwhelming response to such a small wildfire, which was confined to just an acre and a half of recently logged land near Anchor Point, highlights the danger of spring slash burning, particularly on the Kenai Peninsula with its thousands of acres of dead spruce forest.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Anchor Point Volunteer Fire Department firefighters arrived at the scene near Mile 150 of the Sterling Highway.

With strong winds pushing flames in the direction of a stand of beetle-killed spruce as well as buildings in the area, Homer Volunteer Fire Department and Alaska Division of Forestry fire crews were enlisted to help.

Within several hours a Division of Forestry helicopter crew from Palmer and vehicles from Soldotna had joined the Anchor Point and Homer fire departments and a forestry fire crew from Homer. Approximately 20 state and local firefighters were on the scene.

Despite the adrenaline rush that comes from hearing a "structures threatened" wildfire call coming over the radio, Division of Forestry incident commander Matt James of Homer said he never felt the fire was out of control. The crew from ArcTech, which is logging the roughly 40-acre state timber sale, had never left the area, where several piles were burning.

"I could see from the condition of the fuel and the ice and snow on the ground" that the fire wasn't going to spread too fast, James said.

By 10:30 p.m. the fire was mostly extinguished and with the help of overnight rain, by the time a crew returned to the site in the morning there was nothing more than a few smoldering remains to clean up.

It could have been much worse, James said.

"If this fire had happened three weeks from now, it would have been a lot tougher to control," he said. "The circumstances could have been lot different."

Division of Forestry fire prevention officer Sharon Roesch said she doubts that having snow on the ground means a fire will go out as easily as Sunday's blaze, adding that she is concerned about slash piles burned earlier this year. Duff and embers can smolder for weeks, she said.

"If people burned using the snow as their fire break, they need to go back and recheck those piles and make sure there is still an adequate fire break," Roesch said.

She added that it may be necessary to use heavy equipment to scrape a fire break and pull apart the burn piles.

Spring is the most volatile season for fire danger in Alaska, as melting snow exposes combustible materials to the drying effect of persistent wind. People are often lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that recent snow cover and melt water means the grasses on their property won't burn.

Roesch said each spring there is an increase of burning on private land as people try to get their slash piles burned before May 1, when the Division of Forestry begins requiring burn permits.

"I hear a lot of people say, 'I'm just trying to get my burning done before the deadline,'" Roesch said.

The Homer fire department responded to four fires last week, including a slash pile fire out East End Road that began to spread into nearby grasses.

The Division of Forestry often bills landowners who start fires that escape their control. ArcTech probably will not be charged for Sunday's fire, Roesch said, because the fire never left the timber sale lot.