‘Burn now, but safely’: Division of Forestry hopes for a manageable wildfire season

Houston Volunteer Firefighters put out a ground fire started illegally on public land in late...
Houston Volunteer Firefighters put out a ground fire started illegally on public land in late Jan.(Chief Christian Hartley, Houston Fire Department)
Published: Feb. 9, 2021 at 7:51 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It may still be winter, but firefighting staff with the Division of Forestry say that it’s never too early to practice safe burning to prevent any avoidable fires this summer.

Toward the end of January, the Houston Volunteer Fire Department had to put out a ground fire on Robin Hood Drive. According to the department, someone was illegally chopping and burning wood on public land. There was about 500 square feet area of grass and trees burning when crews arrived.

That could have turned into a much worse fire come spring according to Division of Forestry public information officer, Tim Mowry.

“Something like that, or when people are burning big burn piles or stuff where they’re clearing their big brush piles. They burn that down, pretty much leave it there,” Mowry said. “Because it’s winter, they don’t worry about it. But those kinds of things can hold heat for a long time, for weeks, months. And we worry about them rekindling in the spring.”

He said the mixture of dirt, grass, and other bio-material under the snow can smolder in hot pockets for the entire winter. One good breeze and he said it could carry an ember elsewhere or reignite the fire where it started.

Although, Mowry said now is the time to be burning those big burn piles and other materials. He said folks just need to do so safely.

“You got two months until the fire season starts April 1, where you need a burn permit. So if you do have piles of brush that you can burn now, we recommend you burning it now as long as burning is legal within the municipality or borough where you’re at,” Mowry said.

If it is legal where you’re located, Mowry said to practice safe burning. That means bringing all the tools to manage the fire — either some ready water or a shovel to toss snow onto the embers. Above all, he said do not leave a fire unattended.

Mowry said all this is to keep the actual wildfire season more manageable. He said last summer didn’t see nearly as many fires and didn’t need nearly as many wildfires as the summer 2019 season. However, for the fires we did see — like the Isom Creek fire — fighting them was more complicated because of quarantine protocols brought on by the pandemic.

Mowry said it became much more of a challenge to fly firefighters up from the Lower 48 and put them where they needed to be. The same was true when Alaska firefighters went down south last summer. Leading up to this season, Mowry said they’re working with the state to provide firefighters with protection from the virus.

“We’re still in the process of working with DHSS on getting firefighters vaccinated and trying to get them moved up on the list if possible. Because we’d like to have firefighters vaccinated before fire season so that it’s not as much of an issue this year,” Mowry said.

Mowry said they are in the process of hiring more firefighters as well. However, he said this is standard for this time of year due to high turnover and not because of the pandemic. He said firefighting experience is preferred, but the biggest prerequisite is a willingness to “work hard and not be afraid to get dirty.”

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