Contributed by Debra McGhan
After a warmer and dryer than expected April, the cool, damp days of May came as a relief. Maybe not for everyone, but for the crews at the division of Forestry, it was a sure blessing.
Memories of devastating fires which have impacted the Mat Su Valley in year’s past, are still vivid. If June, July or August turn out to be warm and dry, we could face a similar tragedy, and with the devastation from the spruce bark beetle infestation obvious across the valley, it would likely be of monumental proportion.
I recall an evening bike ride that reminds me just how foolish and dangerous humans can be. My friend and I set out along trails lined with dried leaves and trees between lakes and wooded wilderness. I could smell the fresh earth, hear the birds chirping and taste the clean, spring air as we peddled along.
We were heading back home when my friend suddenly stopped, laid his bike on the ground and started running along the trail. Curious, I followed. At a bluff overlooking a small lake, we could hear laughter and shouting coming from across the water. It didn’t take long to figure out we’d stumbled across a group of teenagers having a party. Thinking it wise to remind them to be careful, we started their direction.
Before we got close enough to say anything, they piled into two vehicles and drove away. As silence returned, we walked down to the lakeshore and found evidence of their sloppy departure; a dozen empty beer cans and the burning embers of a smoldering campfire.
A brisk breeze lifted my hair – and sparks, caught by the movement of air, leapt out of the flame pit and caught the nearby brush on fire. My friend and I didn’t say anything, just went to work stomping out embers and digging up the earth with sticks. Using an empty can to carry water, we soon had nothing left but blackened mud and charred aluminum. Wind swirled through the trees and scattered dry leaves at our feet. I shivered at the thought of what might have happened if we hadn’t found this fire?
I hated the thought of my home, my paradise, gone in a blazing wildfire.
I remembered images of other people forced to live that horror. The tears. The pain. The agony… This day, thanks to good fortune, my neighbors and I in Meadow Lakes had been spared the same tragedy.
Another summer, while working late at my cabin, a flash from a silver row boat on the lake outside my window caught my eye. I noticed three young men fishing. I watched them for a while as they caught fish, then set up a camp and built a fire on the opposite shore to cook their prize. I worried. Lack of rain had left everything tinder dry. Several hours later, they left, and everything returned to normal. Until the next day.
Sitting at my computer, a flash of bright red sparks caught my attention as fire shot into the sky across the lake. I realized in horror, the tops of several dry swamp spruce were blazing with flames.
After calling Forestry, my neighbors and I managed to paddle across the lake and smother the fire. The folks from Forest Service finished the job. This fire, like the other one my friend and I found on our bike adventure, had been started in a crude pit beneath a stand of dry spruce trees littered with beer bottles.
I can’t help but wonder how many times this community has been spared from the devastation of fire by luck and chance intervention?
I know these experiences have sure taught me the importance of staying vigilant. I wish I could believe people would never make mistakes like these again, but the Miller’s Reach fire surrounding Big Lake in 1996, and the Sockeye Fire near Willow in 2015, along with other personal incidents, have taught me to accept the sad truth – we remain far from safe when it comes to wildfire. And the massive spruce bark beetle infestation leaving hundreds of dead trees standing like match sticks makes us even more vulnerable. Here are some tips to help keep yourself and your family safe from wildfire this summer.
- Always make sure you secure a burn permit before building any fire. Burn permits contain valuable instructions for safe and legal burning. Residents must obtain a new permit at the start of each season, which runs from April 1 through August 31. Burn permits are free at state forestry offices and most local fire departments, or can be downloaded and printed at www.forestry.alaska.gov/burn
- Clear dry leaves, brush and pine needles away from rooflines, gutters, decks, porches, patios and along wooden fences. This will eliminate fuel for flying embers.
- Screen and seal vents around your home to prevent embers from getting inside.
- Trim back shrubs and brush at least five feet from buildings
- Remove dead trees infested by spruce bark beetles, these act like standing match sticks.
- Remove anything within 30 feel that could burn such as woodpiles, spare lumber, vehicles, boats or other items that could serve as a fuel source.
- Report all wildfires immediately. The sooner the professionals can put the fire out, the better chance they have for reducing a massive wildfire.
- Get more information at www.firewise.org
These tips are courtesy of firewise.org.
It’s up to us to remain alert. Protect the Mat Su Valley; Be firewise!