APRN Alaska News
So far this year, about 78,000 acres have burned in 280 fires in Alaska. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually below normal. That’s according to Pete Buist, a public information officer for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. Buist has worked on fires in Alaska and the rest of the country for 48 seasons.
Buist says the fire season in the state usually unfolds in a predictable pattern.
Lori: How does this season compare to other years in Alaska?
Pete: It’s early, actually closing in on mid-season. Year-to-date acres is 78,000, year-to date-number of fires is 280 –that’s fairly low compared to busy years, that’s fairly low. Early in the season, we have a lot of fires that are human caused fires and later in the season, lightening caused, that happens about now, it actually a little late this year. So we’re on the low side in terms of numbers of starts and numbers of acres.
Lori: Is that surprising given how dry it is? Didn’t have a lot of snow last winter and dry spring, were you anticipating it would be worse by this time?
Pete: At my age, I don’t anticipate, I wait and see what happens, however we have folks, it’s called the predictive services section, who do computer models and they had predicted a pretty busy season, not just in Alaska but through the Lower 48, so they had predicted a heavy season. That has not transpired so far, but interestingly, for example, this is very much the way 2004 started out which turned out to be our record year, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 million acres burning in Alaska alone.
Lori: Are there signs we could be heading toward something similar?
Pete: I don’t think so. We’re busy right now, we’re not as busy as we get, but we’re busy and the lightning season is coming on, we’re obviously going to get busier for a while, but despite the dire predictions, there’s really no way to accurately come up with what’s going to happen next week, much less what’s going to happen next month. And normally by a month from now, our fire season is pretty much over.
Lori: What about the location of the fires? Are there more fires burning farther south this year?
Pete: That is something that I’ve observed, that there is a little more activity in Southcentral Alaska, normally places like the Kenai and the Mat-Su, the fire danger is the greatest between breakup and green up and when we’ve got wind in the spring, that sort of thing, it’s very busy down there, this year that seems to have extended a bit farther into the season.
Lori: How unusual is it to have several fires threatening primary structures?
Pete: It’s fairly unusual in Alaska just because we don’t have that many built up areas. But certainly there is some pressure on the fire suppression agencies because of the fires that happen to be by built up areas.
Lori: You have the perspective of a long tenure in fire work, working on fire information, based on what’s happening right now, how worried are you for the rest of the summer?
Pete: As I say, by a month from now, normally we’re into more precipitation and lightning becomes less of a problem. I have no reason to think that won’t happen this year, but I suspect we’re going to have a busy two or three weeks before we get to that point.
Lori: We saw burn bans coming out, being put in place just yesterday, which seems puzzling, in a dry spring and early summer like this, why isn’t most of the state under a burn ban already?
Pete: Well, the conditions vary from one place to another and until we have a problem, we don’t like to restrict people. If it gets to the point where our initial attack resources are a little thin and we’re adamant that we don’t need any more new starts and we’ve got some lightning fires, we don’t like to tell people that you can’t burn or you can’t do this or that, people in Alaska are better than people in lots of places about not doing unsafe things, so we’d rather not restrict people but if it gets to the point we have to, we will.
Lori: That’s an interesting point that people here seem to be more fire aware and make better decisions about making sure their campfires are out. Is that what you’re saying?
Pete: That’s been my experience, we all do lots of camping, lots of fishing and we have campfires and know how to take care of them, but in any subset of the population, there’s that few percentage points of folks who are not that careful and they’re the ones that cause the problems.
Lori: The Fourth of July is coming up, how concerned are you about fireworks this year?
Pete: Obviously we don’t need any new starts when we’re as busy as we are. We always mount a small campaign to tell people to be careful about use of fireworks and I’m sure that will be the case again this year, particularly if we’re spread even more thin, we don’t need any new starts.
Lori: We’ve heard that the sockeye fire has been determined to be human caused, but there’s no information yet, about what that may have been. Is there anything new that’s being discovered about pinpointing that?
Pete: There’s investigators working on that and it will probably take a while. I used to be a fire investigator myself and you start with the full array of what it could be and you start eliminating things and what you’re left with would be the cause of the fire. So it’s not always, we think it’s this and here’s some evidence so we’ll call it that. You have to rule out the other things it could have been. So the first thing is, for example, if there’s no lightning in the area, chances are it wasn’t lightning, then when it comes down to human caused, there’s lots of ways that humans cause fires, most inadvertent but if this particular fire is human caused, there’s millions of ways it could have been started. They’re going to winnow through what’s there and discard the things that don’t fit and hopefully come up with a cause.
Lori: It seems like that must be really difficult work. We were hearing reports today from reporters who were in the field, about vehicles being melted by the heat at some places that had burned. How difficult is it, given what’s left, to make after a fire goes through to make that determination?
Pete: Well, interestingly, the origin of a fire is not always burned as completely as downwind from where the fire got bigger and faster and hotter. So you work with burn patterns and work your way back and try and identify where that origin was and then you look for clues and evidence at that origin. But for example, if you were to go out and start a fire with a match or a BIC lighter, that fire is not going to be hundreds and hundreds of degrees at that point. Where it goes and where it is in an hour or so will be much hotter. So very often there is a lot of evidence left at the origin itself.
The bottom line it’s not an unusual year, but it’s not over yet, so we’ll see what happens and we’ll all be able to give a better evaluation at the end of whether it was unusual.
Ground water contamination at Eielson Air Force Base has spread off the facility.
A chemical thought to originate from firefighting foam used at the base prior to the year 2000, is being detected in groundwater wells in a nearby subdivision.
Perfluorinated or “P-FOSS” compounds have been detected in private wells in the Moose Creek neighborhood along the Richardson Highway near Eielson. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Contaminated Sites Program specialist Eric Breitenberger, says the DEC has received test results back on 57 Moose Creek area wells.
“Forty-six out of the 57 wells have tested at or above the public health advisory level for P-FOSS,” he said.
Breietnberger says results from additional wells tested have not come back yet. He estimates there could be as many as 150 drinking water wells in the Moose Creek area. Last month the Air Force announced groundwater testing showed some base wells to be contaminated in excess of the health advisory level, and raised concern about off-site migration. Eielson spokesman Lieutenant Elias Zani says that prompted the Air Force to offer Moose Creek residents well testing.
“And, you know, if they come back above the provisional health advisory level, we are providing bottled drinking water,” Zani said.
Lieutenant Zani says the Air Force is coordinating the response with state and federal agencies. Alaska Department of Health officer Sandrine Deglin says the human health risk is unclear as perfluorinated compounds are an emerging contaminant.
“A few studies have been done and they have been done on fairly large populations. And despite this, there is no convincing evidence that the chemical will cause any particular effect,” Deglin said. “That doesn’t mean that it is safe; it means that further research needs to be done.”
Deglin says the existing studies are not directly comparable to the situation in Moose Creek, as they are based on health effects on large populations with low level exposure to perfluorinated compounds through means other than drinking water.
“P-FOSS is present around us; in furniture, in carpet, all different products that we use pretty much on a daily basis,” she said. “So they exposure doses are very small and that’s why it’s so difficult to conduct the studies.”
Deglin says higher level exposure studies using animals have shown liver and hormonal effects. How broad the P-FOSS exposure is in the Eielson area hinges on ground water spread. The DEC’s Breitenberger says the drainage is generally northwest, away from populated areas.
“We don’t know how exactly far down gradient the contamination could extend, but the good news is that there are very few houses for quite a distance,” he said.
DEC representatives are joining Air Force officials at a public meeting at the Moose Creek Fire Department on Tuesday to talk about the groundwater contamination.
Lightning ignited two new wildfires east of Delta Junction Tuesday night.
Fairbanks-Delta area state fire management officer Ed Sanford says the blazes near the small community of Healy Lake resulted from numerous lightning strikes that hit a swath of Alaska. He says air tankers were deployed on the fires, but they were growing too aggressively to knock down.
“We could not catch it, so we went into what we call point protection, so we have 16 smoke jumpers out there with some boats, setting up sprinkler systems and protecting the cabins out there,” Sanford said.
Sanford says there are about 50 structures, including many recreational cabins, in the fire area. He says an incident management is taking over the fires, which have burned together and are estimated at about 900 acres.
The Alaska wildfire situation is expected to remain extreme. National Weather Service meteorologist Melissa Kreller says hot dry conditions are forecast to continue through the weekend.
”Certainly we’ll be in the 80s across Fairbanks and much of the area, down to the southeast as you’re getting into more Delta Junction and stuff, you might see some isolated thunderstorms,” Kreller said.
Kreller says that mean lighting that could start new fires, adding that minimal moisture is associated with the storms, and certainly no wetting rains.
Four representatives travelled to Homer to explain the purpose of Northern Edge. Captain Raymond Hesser is a naval officer with Alaskan Command.
“We as a team were able to present a lot of information. I’m sure they learned something and the whole point was an information exchange. We gave them some information and then we were able to listen. I think we got a pretty good amount of feedback,” says Hesser.
Hesser and his team explained the history of Northern Edge, the drills involved, and the equipment that would be used. They also said there wouldn’t be any population wide impacts to fish or marine mammals. Homer residents rejected that. Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, seemed to surprise the delegation with a question on the Navy’s recent legal trouble regarding exercises planned in waters near Hawaii and Southern California.
“There was a court decision in April that said the analysis, the environmental analysis, that they did in Hawaii and Southern California waters was inadequate. And it was actually illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other federal laws,” says Shavelson.
Shavelson asked if the Navy violated federal law there, then what are they doing differently here. None of the speakers had an answer. Hesser says he wishes he did.
“Would I have liked to have answers to every single question that was given? Yes. Had I heard that question before? Yes. Have I heard it answered before? Yes. I just would not even dare to try and answer the question when I don’t personally know the answer. We just did the best we could on very short notice to try and be as transparent as possible,” says Hesser.
Hesser says the group was invited on Thursday which gave them a few days to make the trip to Homer. He adds that if the same legal error were made with this study he is sure they would face a similar court ruling.
“That’s not an answer to the question but I just understand that they’re different so I just tried to point that out,” says Hesser.
The audience also chided the representatives for the Navy’s history of pollution, for not knowing about herring data gathered by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, and for claiming sonar impacts on fish and marine mammals would be minimal. Shelley Gill is part of a years’ long humpback whale study with the nonprofit, Eye of the Whale.
“They say sonar doesn’t harm whales. The Navy was kicked out of Hawaii and kicked out of San Diego. He was just talking about how well they did in Puerto Rico and they were kicked out of Puerto Rico too. We know that sonar kills whales,” says Gill.
Gill says the Navy admits in its environmental impact study, or EIS, they don’t know the impact sonar could have on salmon. Dr. Cynthia Ledoux-Bloom is a Fisheries Scientist in California who has worked with the Navy in the Gulf of Alaska. But she says she’s only given the Supplemental EIS for Northern Edge a brief read. Ledoux-Bloom thinks there were good points raised at the meeting, like why the Trustee Council data on herring didn’t make it into the Navy’s impact study.
“I don’t know if the data was available between 2008 and 2011, but if it was it should have been included,” says Ledoux-Bloom.
But she also believes there’s a gap between people’s expectations and what is actually possible. For instance, she doesn’t know how to figure out if there’s a positive relationship between fish mortality and exercises the Navy will be doing in the gulf.
“Were there fish before the training operations? Were there fish after the training operations? Did the training operations themselves remove the fish? If the fish died did they float? Did they sink? Were they dead and just picked up by the shorebirds? So I think trying to figure out mortality and making that relationship…I don’t know how to do it,” says Ledoux-Bloom.
Dr. Ledoux-Bloom says there was a clear divide between the audience’s opinion on the exercises’ impact and the information touted by the Navy’s team. And she says that’s okay.
“When everything goes smooth, I don’t really think you’re getting the full picture or you’re not actually talking to the people you should be talking to. So I though the meeting itself had its moments of discomfort but overall, I really feel super hopeful about it,” says Ledoux-Bloom.
Hesser says he appreciates the community’s concerns and he wishes he could have come to Homer to start a dialogue months before Northern Edge got underway.
A grease-smudged stack of 25 fading sheets of paper in a storage shed is one of only two copies of who’s buried where in Evergreen Cemetery. All the burials since 1986 are handwritten, but that’s about to change. The City and Borough of Juneau was recently awarded a grant to map its graves digitally.
Ben Patterson has been overseeing the grounds at Evergreen Cemetery for about 12 years. During that time, he’s been able to reflect on where he’d like to spend his final days.
“I definitely don’t want to be put into the ground, I know that,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s because I’ve spent so much time in the cemetery, but I think I’d rather be spread around a little bit.”
Inside the cemetery storage shed, along with gardening tools and a lawnmower, is an invaluable stack papers.
“Basically 25 pages of maps that show all the plots,” Patterson says.
The other known copy is kept in a separate location to avoid both being destroyed in a fire. More than 8,000 people are buried at Evergreen. The cemetery dates back to the 1880s when it was moved from its original spot on Chicken Hill.
“It was staked as a mining claim for gold. So they had to move everyone that was there,” Patterson says.
Some of the rectangular plots look like they were thrown out like dice, some are orderly. Names collected from a 1986 survey are printed inside some of those rectangles.
“All the handwritten notes are just all the burials that happened since then or were discovered since then,” he says. “And that’s basically the only record of the these locations since the 80s.”
It’s not a great system, though Patterson has almost all the grave sites memorized. He can flip through the 25 pages and find people by name, and he can find them on the ground.
“I was just mowing the other day and someone walked up and asked me where a certain person was and I just happened to have just weed whipped around his headstone and they were joking with me that I had all 8,000 graves memorized,” he says.
With the rise in genealogical databases, like Ancestry.com, Patterson says he’s noticed an increase in these requests. Last week alone, he’s located the graves of five different people. A new system will be a big help.
“It is huge. It’s going to mean that’s it’s going to be way easier for people to find everyone in Evergreen,” he says.
The City and Borough of Juneau was awarded a $17,000 grant in federal funds to put a cemetery map online.
Outside, city cartographer Quinn Tracy holds a GPS device above the headstone of Joe Juneau to pinpoint the exact geographic location. The device beeps as the site is mapped.
“So when I bring these points into the information geographic names system, I’ll have a point and then name associated with that point,” he says.
Buried at Evergreen are several notable people in Alaska’s history: city co-founders Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, victims of the sinking of the Princess Sophia and civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich.
Tracy only needs two coordinates per grid section to map the entire cemetery–the rest will be overlaid using a digital scan of the 1986 survey. He peels back the moss from a crumbling headstone to uncover a name.
“I don’t know, it’s just kind of sad that some of these you can’t really read,” Tracy says.
Soon family and friends will be able to search for grave sites on the city’s website with the click of a mouse.
“It’ll be similar in concept to Google Maps where you enter an address and it takes you to that location,” he says. “In that case, you’ll enter someone’s name and will take you to their location in Evergreen Cemetery.”
Most of the remaining plots were sold in the 1950s and the site is almost full. Before long, there will be no new burials. Children nearby take turns tumbling down the hill.
Groundskeeper Ben Patterson says he doesn’t mind the historic resting place being treated like a park.
“I don’t find that disrespectful. I think it’s one of the neatest things about our cemetery is that it’s just so peaceful and people like it so much,” Patterson says.
The Evergreen Cemetery map goes online in October.
The Sockeye Fire near Willow, at the latest report, is holding steady at just over 7,500 acres.
So far this year, about 78,000 acres have burned in 280 fires in Alaska. Pete Buist, a public information officer for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, says that’s lower than normal.
“Early in the season, we have a lot of fires that are human caused, and then as the season progresses, we get into the time of year when lightning is common,” Buist said. “And that happens, frankly, about now; it’s actually a little late this year.”
“So, we’re on the low side in terms of numbers starts and numbers of acres.”
Though fire activity is down, overall, Buist says what is a little different this year is where the fires are located.
“Normally, places like the Kenai and the Mat-Su, the fire danger is the greatest between break-up and green-up and when we’ve got wind in the spring and that sort of thing, it’s very busy down there,” he said. “This year, that seems to have extended a bit further into the season.”
Predictions coming into this year’s fire season tended toward the high end. That hasn’t transpired, so far.
Buist says this season is similar to 2004 – which was a record-high fire season, where about 7 million acres burned – but he doesn’t anticipate a repeat of that season.
“Despite the dire predictions, there’s really no way to accurately come up with what’s gonna happen next week, much less what’s gonna happen next month,” he said.
Buist says it will likely be a busy few weeks for fire crews, but after that, the fire danger should gradually lessen.
“By a month from now, normally we’re into more precipitation, and lightning becomes less and less of a problem,” Buist said.
And he says he has no reason to think that won’t happen again this year.
Until then, there’s plenty of hot, dry weather in the forecast and the Fourth of July is approaching. Buist says Alaskans are typically more fire safe than most.
“We all do lots of camping, lots of fishing, and we have those campfires and know how to take care of them, but in any subset of the population, there is that few percentage points of folks who are not that careful and they’re the ones that cause the problems,” Buist said.
In times of high fire danger, Buist cautions people against using fireworks.
Burn bans are in effect throughout much of the Kenai Peninsula and Southcentral Alaska.
Update: 6:30am, June 17.
About 300 firefighters are on the ground trying to stop the Sockeye Fire, north of Willow, and they have air resources. The fire acreage did not increase Tuesday.
Fire managers are reporting good progress on containing the northern portion.
Tuesday’s storms brought little rain, but did produce lightening strikes to the north, which firefighters attacked aggressively to prevent their growth.
The region is unlikely get much of a break from the weather Wednesday. Scattered dry thunderstorms, low humidity and gusty winds are in the forecast for this afternoon and evening in the Susitna Valley, from Willow to Talkeetna.
Traffic has been moving through the Parks Highway, led by a pilot car.
Firefighters hope to have containment within a day or so. The Sockeye fire is currently zero percent contained.
Update: 10:30am, June 17.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is putting federal money behind the effort to fight the Card Street Fire in Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula.
The fire is now five percent contained.
At least 300 people have been evacuated, mostly in the Fueding Lane and Kenai Keys areas. Hundreds of homes are potentially in the path of the fire, many of them primary homes. Three homes have been destroyed so far, ten structures in total. The fire has consumed more than 2,500 acres.
Hot Shot crews arrived Tuesday night and a Type-2 Management Team was expected to take over operations Wednesday afternoon. There are 28 uncontrolled fires within the state which has burned over 70,000 acres to date.
Update: 6:30am, June 17.
Fire crews were kept busy on the central Kenai Peninsula Tuesday night, keeping an eye on the Card Street Fire to prevent it from spreading to homes in the Kenai Keys areas, and attacking two new fires in the Copper Landing area.
Lightning was pegged as the culprit for the new fires, both near Milepost 51 of the Sterling Highway. The Alaska Division and Forestry and the Forest Service initially focused on the fire near Juneau Lake along Resurrection Pass Trail, north of the Sterling Highway.
The other is burning on the south side of the highway on a steep mountainside in the Russian Lakes area. That fire was about 20 acres when crews reached the area, but Andy Alexandrou, with the Division of Forestry, said Tuesday that the Russian Lake Fire is “gobbling” — moving fast up steep terrain near power lines, the Sterling Highway, and some residences.
No lightning strikes were recording in Sterling on Tuesday, but dry conditions and variable winds continue to hinder firefighting efforts. The Card Street Fire, which began Monday afternoon, had grown to just over 2,000 acres, or 3 square miles, by Tuesday evening. The fire has damaged or destroyed at least 10 structures in eastern Sterling, three of them houses.
Hot spots appeared across the Kenai River in last year’s Funny River Fire burn area Tuesday, but crews have been able to contain them. Air tankers continue to dump retardant as a barrier between the fire’s edge and homes, with helicopters dumping water in more targeted operations.
Residents are keeping a close eye on the fire, as well. Many have evacuated, with the Sterling Community Center serving as a shelter and hub for relief efforts. Not everyone is heeding the evacuation request, however.
Kurt and Tammy Strausbaugh stayed in their house Monday night and watched the flames come to within a half mile from their back deck.
“I’ve got a good 50-foot buffer around at least most of my home, but our home is made of wood and our deck is really kindling dry, just like everything else is right now,” Kurt said.
The Strausbaughs live about one-third of a mile down Card Street off the Sterling Highway. They had everything packed up and moved out Monday, and were ready to move themselves is need be.
“We just hunkered down. We’re so close to the highway, if the flames would have come onto our property we already had the vehicles pointed down the street,” he said. “We would be able to get out, put it that way.”
Alexandrou said that a hot shot crew was scheduled to arrive on the scene Tuesday night, and a Type 2 management team is expected to take over operations Wednesday morning.
More air support is on the way, as well, including two Black Hawk helicopters from the National Guard and a Canadian CL-215 scoop aircraft.
There is a bit of heartening news from the Sockeye fire. Erratic weather, expected to bring strong winds to the area late Tuesday, did not actually materialize after a thunderstorm passed overhead, and fire crews have arrived from outside Alaska to begin an offensive against the blaze.
The parking lot at Houston High School is now a staging area for forestry personnel, as fire crews begin a full assault on the Sockeye wildfire.
Vanloads of equipment are piled high, cases of water bottles stacked everywhere, and shovels and backpacks are heaped up, ready for the five 20-person Hot Shot crews that arrived Tuesday. Tom Kurth, the incident commander, hosted a press conference in the school parking lot Tuesday afternoon, saying the fire had gained one thousand acres between Monday and Tuesday, and he was watching the weather, concerned that conditions that could expand the blaze
“We’re starting to get familiar with exactly how to approach it, and you’ll see progress made as we continue through the week here. Again, we do have what our fire weather forecaster is saying no break in the activity here as far as she can see. Today, we have dry thunderstorms predicted for the Talkeetna Mountains, due East of here. That could bring dry lightening, new starts, it could also bring strong downdrafts, winds, behavior that could excite the fire out there. ”
The thunderstorm passed over the North end of the fire, around 7 pm, sprinkling the area a bit, but doing little to douse the rest of the blaze. Celeste Prescott, an Alaska Incident Management Team fire information officer, said the winds did not come up late Tuesday either, and that is good news.
“The crews were able to get a great amount of work done, with favorable weather through most of the day. When the thunderstorm, the cell, did move through the area, they did receive some winds on the fire, but no major significant events happened from that.”
Prescott said that the fire is not expected to grow much by Wednesday. She said that there will be a total of 16 crews working on the blaze when another planeload of firefighters arrives Wednesday from Boise, Idaho.
Prescott said that some of the incoming firefighters will be sent to work on the Kenai wildfire. One hot shot crew was loaned to Mat Su to fight lightening caused fires near Montana Creek on Tuesday, she said. Those blazes are under control.
The Sockeye fire is the number one priority in the state, and the nation, she said, although so many fire resources are available now because there is little fire activity in the Lower 48.
Although the slight inroads on the fire are welcome news, Prescott could not say how long it will be before the fire is contained.
“Well, here’s our biggest issue. This is a fuel driven fire, also, with wind and weather, I mean, we need the help of Mother Nature to help us out.”
And mother nature is notoriously fickle.
“We’re gonna work on securing the edges as much as possible. But with as large a fire as this and as hot as it’s burnt and as deep as it’s burnt, we’re going to need some rain and some cooler temperatures. We’re going to be in this for a duration of time. ”
And for homeowners waiting in shelters to find out if it is safe to go home again, the news is not good. Tom Kurth said on Tuesday that a lot of places that were evacuated are in the interior of the fire. He says forestry wants to keep those areas clear for fire crews to do their work
“So we’re trying to keep that area clear so we can move our firefighting resources in and out of those places safely. We know it’s a major inconvenience for people, but we do have the cooperation of law enforcement who have sealed those areas off. So right now, we have not allowed people in there. That decision will be made in cooperation with the Mat Su Borough and with law enforcement, and it is likely, I’m going to still put forty eight hours on that.”
A community meeting is set for 7 pm in Houston Middle School Wednesday.
On Tuesday evening, lightning strikes started two fires in the area of Goose Creek near Mile 95 of the Parks Highway. Sockeye Fire Incident Command spokesperson Celeste Prescott said that the Division of Forestry dispatched two tankers and a helicopter to combat the fires. She says a total of at least nine new starts due to lightning had been reported by 8:00 pm on Tuesday.
As of that time, Prescott said the aircraft reported that they were returning from the area, which could indicate that the fires have been significantly slowed.
Prescott said a hotshot crew on loan from the Sockeye Fire efforts is on the way to the fires to attempt to contain and secure the area. They are officially being referred to as the Montana Creek fires.
The Division of Forestry has also confirmed an addition fire in Cooper Landing, not far from Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula. However, details are not yet available.
Update: Tuesday 8 pm Detailed maps available through Alaska Wildland Fire Information.
The Sockeye Fire burning north of Willow is now the number one priority fire in the country. At least 400 firefighters will be on scene by the end of Tuesday.
Fire information officials held a parking lot press conference at Houston High School, which is serving as the command post, this afternoon.
Tom Kurth, Sockeye fire incident commander, said crews coming in are attempting to gain a safe anchor at the north end of the fire and begin offensive action.
He said the fire – which started Sunday afternoon – is advancing on three sides; the eastern perimeter, the northwest corner and the southern tip.
“We still have a lot of potential for the fire to move,” he said. “However… t least we’re getting familiar with what it’s going to take to try to slow it down. There are a lot of structures still at risk, there’s a lot of values inside the perimeter so those are of upmost concern.”
Kurth said the priority is to protect structures, protect the railroad, and keep the Parks Highway open. Kurth said the number of structures destroyed has grown, as well.
“There’s somewhere between 50 and 100 structures that have been lost. That’s a very loose survey that’s been done by drive-by… but I do want to qualify that a structure could be as small as 40 square feet.” Structures could include greenhouses and even some chicken coops.
Kurth said firefighters who have been working so far are reaching fatigue limits, but new crews that had just arrived would soon be on scene.
Update — 7 pm, Tuesday
The Division of Forestry is evacuating the Kenai Keyes subdivision for the second time today as the now 2,000 acre Card Street Fire is only one mile to the east of the area.
According to their Facebook post, “Firefighters are holding it out of the area but they want to get people out in the event wind associated with thunderstorm cells building to the east produces winds that could fan the flames.”
Various agencies are reporting that Hot Shot crews have arrived on the Kenai Peninsula to assist. Five teams, totaling 100 firefighters will join state and local forces numbering around 70.
Additional air support has also been called in, with two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters on the way and a scoop air craft. Nearly 40 drops have been made with fire dispersants.
The fire is moving to the east, and has forced the closure of the west entrance of Skilak Lake Road. The boat ramp there is still accessible from the east entrance.
The Division of Forestry estimates the cost for the first day of operations runs in excess of $140,000. So far 30 loads of retardants have been dumped on the fire. Ten structures have been confirmed destroyed.
A Type-2 management team from Washington state will transition into a lead role Wednesday, working with local agencies. An update from those officials is set for noon Wednesday.
Original post — 5:30 pm
New maps from the Kenai Peninsula Borough show the Card Street Fire has grown to approximately 1,500 acres.
The Community Center in Sterling continues to be the hub for relief efforts. Residents are sharing updates, along with food, clothes, phone chargers, everything. I was just opening my laptop to pull up the latest evacuation maps when a man who had just left the fire zone came over.
“My name is Shun Ada Chi. I saw that maybe my house was going to burn down because it’s coming very quickly through the Feuding Lane and Kenai Keys area. The people were screaming, crying, it’s a very horrible situation. My house is okay. But I’m feeling very sorry for people who have lost their house.”
Shun is one of the lucky ones. Crews have been battling the fire in his neighborhood for nearly 24 hours and ten structures have been destroyed. Krista Schooley is volunteering here. She’s already heard of some bad news for one family.
“We had a lady come in who lost everything,” Schooley said. “She was able to save her two dogs. Her husband woke up to the fire being on her house and all he could do was grab the animals and get out. She was dazed, just in shock. And she came in here and we just loved on her.”
This fire has been confirmed as human caused. It started Monday afternoon and quickly grew to more than six hundred acres. Calm winds throughout the night and into Tuesday morning helped slow the fire’s growth. But Forestry spokesperson Terry Anderson says firefighters are concerned about Tuesday night’s forecast.
“The national lightening forecast for dry lightening, which firefighters always go over in the morning, is a forecast from 1-6,” Anderson said. “Usually in Alaska you may see twos or threes or fours for a lightening forecast. The forecast for the Kenai is a six today. That’s about as high as it gets.”
A Hotshot crew was scheduled to arrive on the scene Tuesday night. A Type 2 management team is slated to take over operations Wednesday morning. Another Forestry spokesperson, Andy Alexandrou says more air support will be on the way as well.
“A couple of Black hawks that were ordered up this morning from the National Guard to pitch in with their bucket and water capability as well as a Canadian CL-215 scoop aircraft,” Alexandrou said. “We’ve seen them here in the state in the past.”
Travelers along the Sterling Highway should check with the Department of Transportation’s 511 number for information on closures. The Alaska State Troopers are in the area helping direct traffic as crews focus their attention on the east end of the fire, where it’s just a couple miles from the highway.
Fishing communities across Bristol Bay are pulsing with action these days as armies of fisherman work to ready their vessels for the extra-large return of salmon this year. KDLG’s Matt Martin spent the weekend at the boatyard in Naknek and brings us this audio postcard.
Dozens of people have been evacuated from properties in the vicinity of the Card Street fire. Larissa Notter and her husband, Jason, left their home Monday evening with as much as they could pack into their cars and headed to a family member’s house indefinitely. Notter says this isn’t the first time they’ve had to leave.
The safety of drilling in the Arctic Ocean was debated at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing this morning. Advocates of oil and gas development say the rules the government wants to impose on future offshore projects in the Arctic are needlessly burdensome.
If Shell goes ahead with plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, it will be following custom-crafted safety terms it worked out with the federal government. The government now wants to lock some of those requirements into regulations, to apply to future Arctic projects. It was obvious at the hearing that industry especially dislikes one proposed condition: The requirement that an operator be able to drill a same-season relief well in case of a blowout.
Alaska Congressman Don Young says Arctic wells are unlikely to go out of control because they would tap shallow, low-pressure petroleum reservoirs. Young challenged Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, about whether a blowout is even possible under those conditions.
“Sir, we would agree that the risk is low,” Salerno said, but he said they are still possible.
Young chided witnesses at the hearing for emphasizing the risk.
“That’s what I call leading in hysteria,” Young said. “The chances of a blowout will not occur.”
In Salerno’s view, the penalty is high for being wrong about that.
“Should something occur and you don’t have the means to deal with it, you may be stuck with an out of control well until the next season,” he said.
The same-season relief well requirement means operators would have to send two rigs to the Arctic, so it’s expensive. It also shrinks the drilling season, because they’d have to stop regular operations with enough time left to drill an emergency well before the ice returns in the fall.
Drue Pearce, a former Alaska legislator and now a policy advisor to industry, argues the requirement actually increases risk. As Pearce sees it, the shorter season means it will take two years to drill a single well, and each year, an armada of support vessels has to sail from Dutch Harbor into the Arctic and back.
“And most of the accidents that put oil in the water are transportation-related accidents. So you have at least doubled, if not more than doubled, the risk, by forcing that transportation twice,” she testified.
Pearce says new safety technologies used in other countries would be more effective than a relief well in the unlikely event of a blowout. (Salerno says his agency has chased down reports of such technology but says he knows of nothing that can substitute for a relief well.)
To Congresswoman Lois Capps, a California Democrat whose district includes Santa Barbara, the reassurances from Pearce and others rang hollow.
“The company that operates the pipeline that recently burst in my district also assured state regulators that pipeline was ‘state of the art’ and that spills were ‘extremely unlikely,'” Capps said. “On May 19, that ‘extremely unlikely’ event actually happened.”
Now, Capps says, a hundred miles of California beaches are fouled by heavy off-shore crude, fishermen are suffering and hundreds of birds are dead.
Pearce, though, says that pipeline accident in Santa Barbara proves one of her points: that most oil spills stem from transportation, not drilling.
A bill by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski cleared an Appropriations subcommittee today, but controversy is brewing over sections that would undo two of the Obama administration’s highest profile environmental efforts. The bill would also compel a land exchange to build an 11-mile road in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, to connect King Cove and Cold Bay.
If the state of Alaska agrees to the land exchange, the bill would require the federal government to trade some 200 acres in the refuge so the road can be built, according to Murkowski’s staff. Murkowski has long argued the road is necessary for medical evacuations, and she says this bill aims to pin down the feds.
“We’re not going to let the Interior Department say they’re not interested,” she said in a phone call to reporters. “We’ve already gone down that road once before.”
Nationally, the bill would block new rules defining “Waters of the U.S.” in the Clean Water Act. Republicans complain the so-called WOTUS rule is EPA overreach. The bill would also gut new Obama administration limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.
Murkowski, as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, is responsible for writing the bill that funds Interior, the EPA and other resource agencies. She says the bill fully funds contract support costs for Native-run hospitals. It also changes the way fighting wildfires is funded, so agencies won’t have to divert money from other programs to pay for major fires.
The top Democrat on the subcommittee, Tom Udall of New Mexico, says he has deep objections to the policy changes.
“This bill takes dead aim at core environmental laws that have for decades protected the health of our communities, our families and our environment. And for decades were bipartisan,” he said.
Udall says he’ll try to strip those sections out on Thursday, when the bill goes to the full committee.
A wildfire caused by lightning in the interior is burning near the Village of Dot Lake. The Tanana Slough Fire has burned about 500 acres on an island in the Tanana River. The island is about three miles north of the small Native community off the Alaska Highway near Tok. Area state forester Jeff Hermans says suppression efforts are aimed at keeping the fire on the island.
“Not let it escape out of the slough where theres lots of fuels in front of it in either direction. And so far we’ve been successful in that, it’s tried spotting out a couple of times and we’re able to keep the fire in check.”
Hermans says firefighters hope to conduct a burn out operation to consume fuels on the island when winds are favorable.
Meanwhile, another wildfire is burning in the Yukon Flats, near Ft. Yukon.
The Back Yukon Slough blaze had burned about 40 acres as of Monday night. The human caused fire was about 20 miles northwest of the village. The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reports that 14 smoke jumpers are working the blaze.
Fishing communities across Bristol Bay are pulsing with action these days as armies of fisherman work to ready their vessels for the extra-large return of salmon this year.
Still sitting on stilts in the boat yard, the Homeward rumbles to life for the first time this season. The Lummy yard is a beehive of activity with people making all the final preparation before they put their boats in the water.
Carl Spielman is the Skipper of the Vantage Point. He’s hoping to get his boat started up and in the water in a day or two.
“Get the boat up and running, sort of wake it up like a bear coming out of hibernation,” Spielman said.
The same thing could be said about the town of Naknek itself. There is traffic on the road and there is an energy in the air as people are anxious for the season to start.
Spielman looks forward to that feeling each year. He’s been fishing out of Naknek for almost 4 decades.
“Like deer camp, when you go out hunting or something, we come out and see each other for the first time, and we share tools and it’s really fun,” he said.
Lummi’s marine shop’s nonstop roll of customers had the store owners too busy for even a short interview but Sam Yoder who fishes on the F/V Thumper was at the store looking for parts.
“I’m trying to plum in a refrigeration system but unfortunately there pretty slim pickings for parts this time of year when everybody is trying to do the same thing,” Yoder said. “It’s a bit of a struggle. You got to get creative when it comes to putting things together.”
Even though he was a little stressed about finding the right piece he needed the prospect of a large return and the warm sunny weather had him ready to fish, and the slogan on his tank top was a clear sign of that.
“That’s it man, suns out guns out, you know it,” he said.
Yoder has been fishing for 20 years and he wouldn’t think of doing anything else.
“You know, honestly, I don’t know what I would do if I had a summer off,” Yoder said. “I hear the 4th of July is fun but I wouldn’t know.”
All the fishermen in town seemed to have one goal in mind, to get their boats in the water. One boat even had a robotic fish singing the crews theme song for the week.
Power was out for residents from Diamond Ridge to the Old Sterling Highway for about an hour on Monday afternoon. The incident, which took place on the Old Sterling, also caused a small fire.
The outage started just after 2:30 p.m. and affected about 630 Homer Electric customers.
HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher says the outage was caused by the failure of an insulator on a power pole. Insulators protect the poles from the heat of the power lines. The failure caused some sparking on the pole which lit a small fire around it.
“When HEA crews arrived at the pole, they were able to see there was a small fire burning at the pole. We quickly made contact with emergency services. The Division of Forestry arrived along with the Anchor Point Fire Department. They quickly extinguished the fire. It never really amounted to much.”
Gallagher says the furthest the fire got away from the pole was about 25 feet before it was extinguished.
“Our guys were able to go right back in afterwards and make some repairs to the power pole. We had power back on at 3:45.”
He says HEA is prepared for the unexpected, but this unseasonally warm and dry weather warrants some extra caution. There was no additional damage reported and no injuries.
“With this weather we’re experiencing right now, it’s very nice out and very warm, but it’s extremely dry. We’re all very well aware of the fire danger that exists right now.”
The Kenai Peninsula is under a burn suspension until conditions change.
A dipnetter’s group is seeking state assistance to repair a sketchy stretch of trail used to access the popular personal use fishery on the Copper River near Chitina. The old section of the Copper River Highway has deteriorated due to past year’s landslides.
President of the Fairbanks based Chitina Dipnetters Association Chuck Derrick recently sent a letter to state legislators, seeking up to $150,000 to fix the former road turned trail.
“That part of the Copper River Highway between O’Brien Creek and Haley Creek is the main ground access to the canyon where you can access the back-eddies and everything where the fishing is best,” he said.
Derrick says if nothing is done, the trail will become useless. He adds that the Dipnetter’s Association has received positive feedback from the State Department of Transportation about fixing the trail. DOT Northern region spokeswoman Meadow Bailey says officials recently surveyed the 6 mile section of trail, which she adds the agency already considers impassable.
“There’s a lot of landslides, there’s a lot of material over the road,” Bailey said. “So we anticipate it would take a couple of weeks to go in and make repairs, but we think we could with about a $100,000-$150,000 investment be able to make that road accessible.”
Bailey says the work is not in the DOT’s budget, but if the legislature were to approved funding it could be scheduled in for the fall of 2016. The Dipnetter’s Association’s Derrick says the 350 member group has pledged to cover 20 percent of the repair cost.