by Bryan Bearss
Smokey Bear turned 70 years old last year and his wise words, “Only you can prevent wildfires” have echoed true in Alaska so far this summer. So far, nearly 600 wildfires have ravaged the state, rapidly consuming nearly six million acres as of July 1. The most publicized fire, the Sockeye Fire, struck right in the heart of dog mushing country in the northern end of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, destroying 26 homes and temporarily displacing about 800 people and nearly as many sled dogs.
Why so many wildfires this year?
Wildfires are common in Alaska and are generally beneficial to the local ecology, but this year fires started earlier than normal and have rapidly escalated, and summer has just begun! These fires came on the heels of a record low snow year in much of Alaska, and an extra-warmt May. These factors led to dry grasses and other groundcover primed for ignition. In many cases, a single lightening strike is enough to spark a fire that is considered “natural”. However humans are equally capable of causing wildfires (about half the fires raging in Alaska today are attributed to humans), and these fires are completely preventable.
One step toward preventing more fires is through the issuing of a “burn ban,” and both the Alaska State Division of Forestry and Fire Marshall Offices issued in June; or the burn ban issued by Anchorage Fire Chief through the 4th of July weekend. These types of bans often mean no wood or charcoal fires, and no fireworks. Equally dangerous, but not mentioned in burn bans are cigarettes, sparks from machinery, and arson (fires deliberately lit with the intent to destroy property). Once burn bans have been dropped continued vigilance is necessary to prevent additional fires. Watch those s’mores!
Without proper care, it doesn’t take much for that glowing campfire to transform from recreation to destruction. The following tips will help keep your family safe, and a campfire under control as you explore Alaska this summer.
- Use established fire rings, 15 feet from flammable objects like tents, bushes or trees
- Place unused firewood upwind and away from the fire.
- Keep the fire small and under control
- Never leave your campfire unattended
- Keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby.
When it’s time to call it a night and extinguish your fire, follow these simple guidelines:
- Allow the wood to burn completely to ash, if possible
- Scrape the remaining wood to remove embers
- Pour lots of water on the fire, continuing to pour until all hissing sounds stop
- Stir the ashes and embers with a shovel
- Make sure everything is wet and cold to the touch
- If you do not have water, use dirt. Mix dirt with the embers until all material is cool.
- DO NOT bury fires! Fires will continue to smolder and could catch roots on fire that could eventually get to the surface and start a wildfire.
Wildfires are part of a natural cycle of many biomes, and typically not a threat to wild areas. Herbivores like moose and rabbits reap the benefits of the new vegetation that grows back after a fire. Fires often will consume the older (and sometimes diseased) trees whose canopy blocks out sunlight and prevent younger trees or smaller plants to grow. Without the shade of the old trees new growth is able to pioneer the land fertilized by the carbon-rich ashes. While a burned over area initially looks like a charred and barren wasteland, it’s not long before it becomes a vast field of pink fireweed blossoms and tasty blueberry bushes. The downside to fires is a new trend researchers are noting in Alaska. Some wildfires are not only burning trees, grasses or tundra. They are also burning the soils as well. This eliminates the insulation for the permafrost (frozen soil beneath the ground) and could allow the release of additional carbon to the atmosphere.
What’s the problem with this? Adding more carbon to the atmosphere will increase global warming, potentially amplifying the weather patterns that made Alaska susceptible to potentially the most prolific wildfire season on record.
Further reading on how to make your home safe from wildfires: http://www.readyforwildfire.org/
General wildfire safety guides: http://forestry.alaska.gov/pdfs/Alaska_Wildland_Fire_Guide_2013.pdf
Local fire ban information: http://forestry.alaska.gov/burn/index.cfm?fuseaction=permits.doShowAreaSpecificInfo&firearea=K