Medred: Big fire on Kenai Peninsula was just a matter of time

AnchorageMay 27, 2014 

Anyone who spent much time in the wild lands of the Kenai Peninsula over the past couple of decades couldn't help but look at all the spruce trees standing dead there, killed by spruce bark beetles, and think about fire danger.

The question was always what should be done about it. Right up until the Kenai erupted into its own version of Armageddon last week, there was debate about the scope of the danger.

"... Massive fires have not followed beetle kill," Ed Berg, a now-retired ecologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, wrote in the Homer Tribune only three years ago. "Careful studies have shown that historically this has not happened in the Colorado, for example, and it has not happened in Alaska. Beetle-kill spruce does indeed burn, especially in the first-year red-needle stage, but drought-stressed live trees with dry needles burn even better. The rate of spread of most fires on the Kenai is determined by ground fuel moisture, be that of litter or grass, and not by whether tree crowns are dead or alive. Dry weather, especially in the spring, is the chief fire danger."

Berg couldn't have been more right about the danger of warm, dry spring weather. But questions now need to be asked about the history.

The Colorado studies date back to a time when America's westward movement was progressing in a big way, and settlers had a habit of cutting down forests to build houses and stores, and create ties for railroads and framework for bridges.

The forests of Colorado were thinned, which suppresses fires. The history of Alaska is short. No one knows how much beetle kill there was in the forests of the Kenai Peninsula in the 1900s, but what is known is that massive fires swept through there about 100 years ago.

"... Large swaths of mature forest burned in wildfires caused by miners and early settlers," according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "As caribou-friendly (forest) habitats were supplanted by moose-friendly shrubs and young hardwoods, caribou numbers decreased while moose numbers increased. With most of their former habitat altered, the remaining caribou were wiped out by unregulated hunting. The last recorded sighting of an indigenous caribou on the Kenai Peninsula was in 1912."

Just a little over 100 years later, the caribou are back, thanks to restocking efforts in the 1960s and again in the 1980s. And this time they are holding their own thanks to carefully regulated hunting.

Moose numbers, meanwhile, declined radically as spruce grew to replace willow shrub and aspen thickets only to be killed by spruce-bark beetles and die standing. The dead, standing trees made great firewood. Some of them were cut for that reason. Others were logged off, primarily on lands belonging to Alaska Native corporations, and Alaskans debated about what do about the rest.

Hunters wanting more moose in the area lobbied for controlled burns. Homeowners worried about the smoke or the possibility of a controlled burn getting out of control opposed that idea. And environmentalists took the comments of Berg and others ecologists to suggest that the best thing would be to let nature take its course, whether that is what the ecologists intended to say or not.

Nature is now taking its course. As of Tuesday morning, when rain finally began to fall on the Kenai Peninsula, more than 180,000 acres had burned, and nearly 700 firefighters had been assigned to the blaze. Remarkably, no one had died, and no inhabited structures had been lost, despite the fire jumping to the north side of the wide Kenai River.

On that side of the river, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is choked with a lot more dead spruce. A fire that crosses the Kenai River and jumps the Sterling Highway might well run all the way to Turnagain Arm.

20/20 hindsight

This possibility has been a topic of discussion for a long time. Back in the 1990s, the University of Alaska's Instiitute for Social and Economic Research completed a study titled "Developing a Public Consensus on the Management of Spruce Beetles on the Kenai Peninsula."

There were then about 700,000 acres of beetle-kill spruce trees on the Kenai, and the state Division of Forestry was trying to decide what to do. The ISER report offered no real guidance, noting only that "residents have mixed views on whether the state should take any action in backcountry areas."

The state did increase logging in the years that followed, but the impact was limited. Much of the land on the Peninsula is within the Kenai refuge and Chugach National Forest, and refuge managers in particular were reluctant to do much logging or even engage in controlled burning, though they were lobbied heavily at times by state Fish and Game biologists wanting better moose habitat.

"Without that widespread fire, the moose population isn't going to increase significantly," Thomas McDonough, a state wildlife biologist, said last fall, as reported in the Anchorage Daily News. The problems with fire were immediately noted.

"Yet letting a naturally-caused wildfire burn to create moose browse could jeopardize homes in Sterling or Soldotna. It could send a plume of smoke into Anchorage, even disrupt flights in and out of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport," the story said.

"In recent times, there have been so many people and so much infrastructure on the Kenai that wildfires burning out of control would not be an option," added regional wildlife supervisor Larry Van Daele, McDonough's supervisor.

But by Memorial Day weekend of 2014, wildfires were burning out of control.

The peninsula tinderbox

Nature takes care of things even as it makes things worse. A lightning-sparked fire burned more than 20,000 acres near Homer in 2005. A 2007 fire in the Caribou Hills near Ninilchik -- south of the present fire -- burned more than 50,000 acres and destroyed 197 structures, including 88 homes and cabins in an area popular for winter recreation.

Meanwhile, the beetles continued their spruce-tree killing spree. By last year, state forestry was reporting dead, "mature spruce trees on 1.2 million acres of the Kenai Peninsula -- about 50 percent of the Peninsula's forested land."

What got less attention was the fact that as the trees died, an increasing number blew over in windstorms. And those still standing lost their needles. Both events opened the forest canopy.

As a result, more and more sunlight reached the forest floor. And as more and more sunlight reached the forest floor, more grass grew there.

Then came the early spring of 2014, warm and dry. Snow melted early. Already dry, winter-killed grass beneath the dead and fallen spruce was exposed to warm air and sunshine.

It became tinder. And as Berg had noted, dry weather in the spring, combined with forest litter or dead grass, "is the chief fire danger."

This year, that tinder ignited at the base of a whole lot of good firewood, and the Kenai exploded into flames.

It was inevitable. And we are where we are today.

About the only good thing that can be said is that fire hasn't erupted on the now heavily occupied Anchorage Hillside, where conditions in still-undeveloped areas are much the same as on the Kenai. Hopefully, the weather forecasters are right about continued rain in Southcentral Alaska.

That would be one more way for nature to take care of things.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

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