TOK–Temperatures have cooled considerably since fires ravaged the forest around Tok last summer. And so has interest in the record-breaking fire season.
None of the 15 people who attended a public meeting held by fire and land management officials pointed fingers or asked what could have been done better, but instead asked what they could do to mitigate the impact of another fire season.
Fire authorities at the meeting at the Tok School on Wednesday night said interest has tapered off considerably in the communities they visited this week, such as Dot Lake, Tanacross, Delta Junction and Northway, where fewer than a dozen attended each meeting.
“We had this room filled many a time this summer,” Chris Maisch, Northern Region forester for the State Division of Forestry, said before the meeting.
This time, people asked questions such as what they could do to keep fires atbay.
Forestry officials who held the meeting as well as people attending brought up suggestions on how to ensure there won’t be another season like the summer of 2004, when Alaska accounted for 6.7 million of the 7 million acres burned nationally.
The Taylor Complex fires burned 1.6 million acres on both sides of the Taylor Highway from the Alaska Highway to Chicken and north of Tanacross, Dot Lake and Northway. With that many acres burned, the likelihood that fires are still burning somewhere within the perimeter is strong, said Tok Area Fire Management officer Clinton Northway.
Northway explained a project to thin some of the black spruce stands around Tok along Red Fox Drive and Borealis Avenue south of town.
“That particular part of town is a very large mature black spruce area,” Northway said.
“It’s very time-consuming and the costs are tremendous,” he said. “That’s where you, the public, should step in and be proactive instead of waiting until the fire is upon you.”
The budget for fire prevention before the wildland fire season starts is limited, Maisch said.
He said forestry relies on grant money because the state doesn’t budget to thin out black spruce.
“We are behind the power curve on that statewide,” Maisch said.
It’s becoming a prominent issue, he said, as the state is making more of its remote land available to private sales. People build cabins on remote parcels the state has sold them in limited-suppression areas. Unless these cabins are considered a primary residence, they receive the same suppression consideration as the land around them.
One man suggested the community would be willing to help thin black spruce areas by using them for firewood. Another asked if the record-breaking fire season would garner more money and resources for the summer of 2005.
“Just because we have a large fire season doesn’t mean we’re going to get anything out of the Legislature,” said Joe Stam, chief of fire and aviation for Forestry.
He used the Miller’s Reach Fire in 1996 as an example. The year after 454 buildings were burned in Big Lake, the budget for fire suppression was reduced for Alaska.
“You guys have the power; we don’t,” said Tom Kurth, northern regional fire management officer. “We’re state employees that they’ve heard from before.”
One positive aspect the fires have brought to the eastern Interior is the effect it has on wildlife habitat.
“We look at this as probably a good thing,” said Al Keech, a technician with state department of fish and game.
Because its range is so large, the Fortymile Caribou Herd wasn’t impacted by the fires, but the Nelchina Caribou Herd, which has overgrazed its natural habitat in the Talkeetna Mountains and has moved into some of the areas burned by the Taylor Complex may be affected, said Dale Haggstrom, a fire and habitat coordinator for Fish and Game.
This remains to be seen, he said.
“Intuitively, we think they can cope with it because fires have been here a long, long time and so have caribou,” Haggstromsaid.
Beth Ipsen can be reached at email@example.com or 459-7545.