Report: Fire officials unprepared for extreme season

Report: Fire officials unprepared for extreme season

26 March 2005

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Fire officials didn’t have an adequate handle on the extent of last summer’s fire danger, said a local attorney who was appointed to a commission that studied firefighting response during Alaska’s record wildfire season.

As a result, the fires on the outskirts of the Fairbanks North Star Borough quickly got out of hand, endangering area residents and their property.

“I can’t point to one firefighting activity that altered the course of the (Boundary) fire,” Lance Parrish said.

Parrish made his comments during a Borough Assembly work session called Thursday to examine the Wildland Fire Commission’s report. The commission was created by the assembly on the recommendation of Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker, who expressed concern over the way firefighting efforts were managed last summer.

The Boundary and the Wolf Creek fires consumed about 900,000 acres north of Fairbanks, forcing evacuations and helping to blanket the area with thick smoke for most of the summer. Statewide, more than 6.7 million acres burned and more than $106 million was spent on firefighting efforts.

Parrish was the only commissioner to attend the work session. Bill Robertson, a former fire manager, and Ken Barrick, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor, did not attend. Whitaker called for another work session to hear from the other commissioners. It will be held before the assembly’s April 14 meeting.

The commissioners examined firefighting efforts for 60 days, hearing from state and federal fire managers, weather forecasters, land managers and others, before releasing its report. The report had recommendations on 23 topics that ranged from fire management policy and planning to communication to firefighting equipment, including aviation resources.

The commission’s first recommendation was to the borough, concluding that the borough needed to be part of any fire management plan for the Interior. A current plan divides the state into sections that receive limited-, modified- and full-suppression efforts.

For the most part, according to the plan, fires in rural Alaska not threatening residents or facilities are not put out immediately, allowing natural processes that decrease fire fuels and increase wildlife habitat to occur.

The Boundary Fire started in a limited-suppression area so fire and land managers allowed the fire to burn. Parrish was critical of that decision.

“They can’t control the fire once it escapes initial attack,” he said.

Parrish lives on Cleary Summit in a hillside neighborhood about 26 miles from Fairbanks. He said he and his neighbors watched the Boundary Fire creep closer, but it was very difficult to get good information about what the fire was doing, he told the assembly.

At one point, he took a drive down the summit toward Chatanika to see where the fire was. Smoke obscured visibility and ash was thick, but there was no sign of firefighting. He found the fire north of Chatanika.

“The flames were 30- to 60-feet tall,” he said. “It was absolutely in complete disarray. Residents were scrambling.”

State and federal fire managers have said repeatedly that last summer was one of extremes, with a combination of parched forests, dry, hot weather and unusual winds that fanned fires across the state.

But Parrish downplayed that scenario, contending fire officials had the information they needed to anticipate a threat to borough residents. He referred to reports made by Avi Shalom, the incident commander of the Boundary Fire team, right before that fire made a big run, growing from 50,000 acres to 250,000 in one day.

“He consistently reported extreme fire behavior,” he said. “(He wrote) the fire is expected to rip in the next couple of days.”

Chris Maisch, the northern regional forester for the Alaska Division of Forestry, disagreed with Parrish’s assessments. He pointed out that while the fires were large, no one was killed and primary residences weren’t lost.

“We did the best we could and I still think we did a good job,” said Maisch, who was unaware of the work session and did not attend.

The Division of Forestry issued a report that summed up state officials’ view of last summer’s fires.

Among the things officials suggested for improvements was to cut down critical stands of black spruce that, once ablaze, would funnel wildfire into Fairbanks. They highlighted the need for heavy air tankers and helicopters, as well as better mapping.

The assembly and Whitaker praised the commission for its work. They passed two resolutions based on the report. One asks for state and federal funding to cut down black spruce and the other seeks increased funding for more firefighting equipment.

Diana Campbell can be reached at 459-7523 or dcampbell@newsminer. com.


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