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Army ignored fire risk before training

Posted: August 4, 2013 - 12:04am

FAIRBANKS — The U.S. Army ignored warnings from the Fort Wainwright Fire Department and the Bureau of Land Management against holding artillery exercises during a day of high fire risk in June.

Army leadership declined to say whether the training ignited an 85,000-acre wildfire, but last month, the Fort Wainwright garrison commander said base training exercises were responsible.

An artillery unit was conducting an exercise on June 19, the day the fire started in the military’s Yukon Training Area.

The Army also began accepting damage claims from those who think they have been affected by the Army’s “possible wrongdoing.”

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reportsstate Army leadership has decided to re-evaluate the procedures used to decide whether to conduct training during “red flag” conditions when risk of fire is high.

Maj. Alan Brown, spokesman for Army Alaska at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, said a unit commander, usually the leader of a company, must request a waiver to conduct training on days when the Bureau of Land Management determines there is a high risk of fire danger.

In the request, the commanding officer identifies ways the unit can mitigate risk, such as having fire-suppression resources ready, or not firing smoke or high-incendiary rounds. A commander planning to conduct training on multiple days of red flag conditions would need multiple waivers.

Brown said the Army Alaska procedures for deciding when to balance the soldiers’ needs to train and the risks, which include the risks of starting a fire. In the June 19 training, the unit limited the number of rounds it fired, and did not fire smoke or high-incendiary rounds, Brown said.

“The balance between getting out there and training in the few really good summer months that we have and making sure that nothing happens for the range, for the soldiers and the community, that’s something that we take very seriously,” he said.

The fire was initially contained before spreading north and causing evacuations in the Pleasant Valley and Two Rivers area. The fire destroyed three cabins and two outbuildings to the south of the Chena River and also burned power lines and fiber-optic cables used to service the military training area.

Fire suppression has cost $19.8 million, according to the Alaska Fire Service.

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