Though it’s unseasonably warm for mid-May and fully green grass and leafed-out trees are a joy to behold for Alaskans used to grey and brown vegetation until early June, my windows are shut tight against the spring air. The sky is mostly blue, with a light skim of clouds that promises to burn off by mid-morning obscuring the sun. Still, it’s not likely to be a good plan to go recreate out of doors today, because the haze on my windows isn’t a sign of slovenly housekeeping – it’s the smoke filling the air from two wildfires burning on the Kenai Peninsula southwest of Anchorage, the Funny River Horse Trail fire and the Tyonek fire.
A low-precip winter with unmatched warm temperatures has resulted in the predictable – a bad fire season that has already started with no signs of slowing. Fires are nothing new here or anywhere else there is fuel to burn, but the severity of wildland fires, and many times even their very ignition, are the byproducts of humans’ competing interests: to live wherever they want, to recreate in whichever way they choose, and to insist on the immediate extinguishment of all resulting blazes to eliminate the possibility of threats to human property.
The latter was the cause of a paradigm shift in wildland firefighting; the policy to extinguish any and all fires that start in or near the wildland-urban interface. The interface is the place that the lucky get to live – no longer the lucky few, as there are millions of people living in wildland-urban interface – where wilderness butts up against human development, houses are more widely spaced and nestled into the woods. You see this type of development all over, in California, where the Oakland fire of 1991 destroyed over three thousand buildings and killed 5 people; in Colorado, where the stories of deadly and destructive wildfires are too numerous to mention but are underscored by the South Canyon Fire of 1994 that killed nearly an entire firefighting crew trying to protect homes from the blaze, while the homeowners themselves watched from their yards far below; and in Alaska, where personal space and freedom reign as the core Alaskan values. We all want our homestead in the woods, with neighbors we can’t even see with binoculars.
Since the policy of extinguishing wildfires immediately has been in place, the amount of fire fuel – standing dead timber, brush, blowdowns – has accumulated to the point that most fires that ignite have the potential to become monsters, with an unlimited supply of dried-to-perfection fuel to feed them. The natural role of wildland fire, that of renewal and rebirth, has been curtailed by the explosion of human encroachment. No one is willing to risk their home for the greater good of allowing a fire to consume extra fuel at regular intervals, nor are they willing to sacrifice their ability to settle on land unencumbered by fire planning and land use restrictions. We’re left with the slow, difficult task of reducing fuels by hand, of sending crews in to laboriously thin and remove standing dead trees – of which there are many millions in Alaska in large part because of a late-90s epidemic of spruce bark beetle – to mimic the well-spaced, healthy forest that wildfires would naturally maintain. A healthy forest has big trees and little trees, so an early-era wildfire could sweep through and burn up the brush, dead trees, and little trees, leaving big trees to survive, since a healthy forest doesn’t have a huge fuels build-up.
While I now can’t justify trying to afford even the taxes on a huge, wooded lot on the Chugach foothills which Anchorage residents call the Hillside, I spent my teenage years living there with my parents, with wildfire a consistent concern. Wildland fire models show that should a fire ignite in the right place in favorable conditions for fire – hot temperatures and strong winds – the entire Anchorage Hillside could be engulfed in a span of time measured in minutes rather than hours. Any fire on the Hillside, even in the Municipality anywhere, is treated with immediate urgency. My family participated in mitigation activities for our home, replacing our roof with non-combustible metal and creating defensible space around the house by cutting back trees so that the house stood a chance of surviving a conflagration of the surrounding woods. There were a few summers of tense days when the scent of smoke wafted through the air; until the source was confirmed as a far-away wildfire, we’d be worried something was burning in town, trapping us until the firestorm swept through, obliterating everything in its path.
Even so, every time I venture out, I find evidence of illicit campfires everywhere. It appears that people even carry wood up to the alpine just to burn it. One of my favorite camp spots lies in the midst of an incredible amount of blowdown on the other side of Turnagain Arm. It’s spooky to be there sometimes during hot weather. A working fire fanned by wind there would be an incredible sight, unescapable for campers, and would undoubtedly threaten the tiny town nestled nearby, and thereby would be extinguished as quickly as possible. What that forest really needs, though, is a good burnover, and from the looks of the illegal fire rings everywhere, we’re going to get it someday.
The inevitable Hillside fire hasn’t happened yet, with all ignitions stopped in their tracks so far, including one during which we drove to a lookout high in the hills to watch my dad in his WWII-era T28 fighter plane guide in the big tankers for fire retardant drops. Yet today Anchorage lies under the pall of smoke from the Funny River fire as crews work to contain it. Almost the entire state (barring the rain forests of the southeast) lies under a burn ban. Only an idiot would think to light a campfire in these conditions.
The Anchorage Community Wildfire Protection Plan reports that a whopping 96% of fires in the Municipality are human-caused. We cause the buildup of fuels, and we cause the fires. It’s just the endless cycle of human development.