Better fire mapping technology would have helped firefighters from being caught off guard when the Boundary Fire took off in a different direction than they anticipated, state fire managers told the borough’s Wildland Fire Commission Friday afternoon.
Smoke from the fire grounded aircraft that could have allowed firefighters to look at the fire’s progress during important fire activity, they said. Firefighters on the ground couldn’t tell either and had to pull back because of smoke, they said.
The unexpected flare-up caused evacuations from several rural neighborhoods north and east of Fairbanks last summer.
“When it’s smoky and you can’t see, there is no way to deal with it,” said Marc Lee, Fairbanks area forester. “That we didn’t call right. We got caught.”
At Friday’s meeting, state fire officials wrapped up the Boundary Fire’s time line, gave a list of “lessons learned” and then took a grilling from commissioners on parts of their testimony.
According to their testimony, fire managers developed several strategies to fight active fires, as per the established routine, Lee said. Those plans are based in part on current fire activity, weather conditions and the fire suppression plan for the land where the fire is burning.
Weather and fire activity indicated that Chatanika, Cleary Summit and Poker Flats could be threatened by part of the Boundary Fire that jumped across to the south side of the Steese Highway, Lee said. They made their plans accordingly, Lee said.
Officials knew they had an unusual and extreme wind coming in from the north that would fan the fire toward residential areas, Lee said. When the wind came, firefighters worked the plan, but in the north flames reached a small stand of highly flammable black spruce and brought fire shooting down a valley toward Haystack Mountain, he said.
An evacuation was ordered just hours after fire officials had said that residents would likely get 24 hours notice of impeding danger, Lee said.
Better fire mapping would have helped, he said.
Lee said at that time it was clear they needed a better communication system with the public in place. He also would like to see a plan established that would cut down on highly flammable areas that could be a fire threat to Fairbanks homes, he said.
They are also looking at changing boundaries where fire will or won’t be fought, said Tom Kurth, northern region fire management officer.
Commissioner Ken Barrick asked if fire plans that say fires are to be aggressively fought should be influenced by different land managers with separate goals, such as the Department of Fish and Game. They might prefer fire because it makes a better moose browse in the following years, Barrick said. Northern Forester Chris Maisch said that it could be perceived that any governmental department would feel “fairly protective over what they perceive as their turf.”
Commissioner Lance Parrish asked if fire managers didn’t indeed mishandle the fire and therefore let it get out of control. Lee said no, blaming the runaway fire on unusual weather that brought a north wind.
“It’s not an excuse,” Parrish replied. “It’s a failure to anticipate.”