Fairbanks 3 March 2005. A report from the Alaska Division of Forestry regarding last year’s near-catastrophic fire season in the Fairbanks area makes recommendations that shouldn’t strike anyone as groundbreaking. Rather, they are logical, rectify past policy, and should be considered. In sum, the report indicates that if the public doesn’t want to live amid the threat of extraordinary wildfires, then the public must allow its fire managers to make sure there isn’t an overabundance of fuel–trees and shrubs–to burn. Years of rapid suppression of wildfires have allowed those fuels to accumulate, creating the situation for the explosive season that forced people from their homes and wrapped the Interior in smoke for most of last summer. Nothing like disaster to encourage a change in thinking.
Thinning the fuels is listed as the highest priority among the many recommendations in the report, which has been forwarded to the borough’s Wildland Fire Commission. The commission, formed by the Borough Assembly at the request of Mayor Jim Whitaker, is to make a final report of its own on Friday. If Fairbanks wants to have a lesser threat level, its residents will need to tolerate the forced loss of some woodlands. That will likely lead to some consternation from some quarters, but the greater good says that thickened woods–thickened unnaturally because man doesn’t let fire run like it should–must be thinned. Need proof that some people will be unhappy? Think back a couple years to the wildfire that damaged the Granite Tors Trail in the Chena River State Recreation Area. But thinned the land must be. Without thinning, either by prescribed burn during a cool or damp season or shearing the trees and burning them in piles, highly combustible black spruce grow larger and in greater numbers–increasing the likelihood of a conflagration. Regular thinning by burning, either naturally and cyclically or in a prescribed manner, allows the land to be restocked by hardwood trees, which burn much slower than spruce and enhance the firefighting effort. The Division of Forestry’s immediate recommendation to this end is to spend some money clearing rights of way in road service areas, the idea being to remove additional trees to provide ready-made firebreaks and allow fire equipment ample room to move among fleeing residents, should an evacuation be under way. The division proposes paying for this from the $1 million in federal money given to the borough via Sen. Ted Stevens late last year to improve firefighting efforts. This and other potential fuels-reduction ideas should be embraced by borough residents, who after last year’s unnerving fire season should be willing to give up a little to gain peace of mind–or at least as much peace as can be pulled from an often unpredictable environment.