Story last updated at 3:55 p.m. Thursday, May 23, 2002

Area on 'Red Flag' fire alert
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Local and state fire crews were stretched paper thin over the weekend as near-record heat and bone-dry humidity levels pushed the treat of fire in the Kenai Peninsula's fields and forests toward extreme or "Red Flag" status.

Around 10 a.m. Saturday, as local fire crews began to mobilize for several small wildfires on the Lower Kenai Peninsula, state forestry officials announced the suspension of all burn permits on the Peninsula. Despite the suspension order, over the next 24 hours or so wildfire crews and local fire departments up and down the Sterling Highway responded to six fires that started as the result of slash pile burning, according to the Division of Forestry.

The burn suspension currently in place prohibits controlled burns of slash or debris of any kind. Campfires no larger than 2 feet by 2 feet and fires in screen-covered burn barrels are allowed, but that was being reconsidered at press time.

Both kinds of fires are required by law to be surrounded by a fire break free of combustible materials.

The timing of the suspension order on Saturday illustrates what a hair trigger the fire season hinges on and how tricky it is for firefighters to stay one step ahead of it logistically.

The string of fires that sprang up on the lower Peninsula Saturday over the course of eight hours offers a case study in the dreadful possibilities facing Division of Forestry decision makers as they bring resources to bear on the fire lines.

* At 9:30 a.m. dispatchers learn of a fire burning in dead spruce near Bear Cove on the south side of Kachemak Bay and respond with two smoke jumpers.

* *At 11:10 a.m. dispatch receives word of a fire just north of Anchor Point in the vicinity of Augusta Lane. State forestry and the Anchor Point Volunteer Fire Department respond with engines and helicopters armed with water and chemical fire retardant.

* At 12:27 p.m. residents of the Green Timbers subdivision in the Baycrest Hill area report a slash fire on West Thomas Road that had jumped into nearby grass. Forestry and the Homer Volunteer Fire Department respond with engines.

* At 3:20 p.m. the Division of Forestry receives word of a brush fire north of Soldotna and respond with a "helitak" crew and multiple engines in conjunction with vehicles and crews from the Kenai-Soldotna area's Central Emergency Services.

* At 5 p.m. a caller alerts officials to a grassfire burning in west of the Kenai Spur Highway. Forestry and Central Emergency Services responded with engines and fire personnel.

As different crews attacked various fires simultaneously, the Forestry radio channel chattered back and forth with information on the movements of personnel and machinery. Saturday's fires were small and winds were relatively light, averaging around 10 mph in the Anchor Point area.

Terry Anderson, an engine foreman with the Division of Forestry currently based in Homer, was the incident commander at the fire in Anchor Point, the day's largest fire which eventually burned 8 acres within three-quarters of a mile from town.

Upon learning of the Green Timbers fire just over the hill in Homer, Anderson said he worried he might have to divide his resources.

"We were stretched pretty thin," he said of both the Anchor Point and state fire crews under his direction. "Had that (Green Timbers) fire escaped the initial attack it would have been a tough choice on where to go with the retardant. The helicopters can only carry so much (water) and we'd have had to decide between (Anchor Point and Homer)."

Fortunately, Anderson didn't have make that decision because firefighters quickly contained the 2-acre fire on the Homer side, allowing efforts in Anchor Point to continue unchecked on the ground and in the air.

With a prominent layer of smoke drifting south into Anchor Point and out across Kachemak Bay, rumors spread about evacuations and road closures.

One FM radio station in the area declared that residents of Anchor Point were being told to evacuate, said Ron Wilhoit of the Anchor Point Volunteer Fire Department. No evacuation was ordered.

"It was a very high-profile fire because it was right off the highway," said Wilhoit, who was Anchor Point's incident commander. Wilhoit added that his station put all its manpower and equipment resources into the suppression effort with the exception of one engine kept in reserve.

Following several days of intense brushfire activity across much of the state including several larger fires in the Interior, the Alaska Division of Forestry on Tuesday issued a Red Flag warning for the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, the central Interior and the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys.

Along with that designation, the Division of Forestry has increased the number of fire crews and support equipment it has standing by, putting the Kenai Peninsula at a high level of fire readiness.

Between Soldotna and Homer are four dispatchers, and 18 initial attack firefighters, 40 additional firefighters, four helicopters, and C-130 tanker aircraft and 16 smoke jumpers in addition to usual array of trucks and tankers.

Despite Wednesday's cloud cover and very intermittent rain showers, State Forestry fire prevention officer Sharon Roesch believes that the fire danger is still extremely high because humidity levels have been so low over the past week.

"This little bit of rain doesn't soak into the peat or the duff," Roesch said. "And the fine fuels dry out quickly. We call the grasses 1-hour fuels because that's how long it takes them to dry out."