Kenai wildfire may be 'unstoppable'

150 Anchorage residents practice evacuating their homes

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2001

KASILOF - Fire experts are warning that no response will be adequate if a wind-blown fire occurs in the Kenai Peninsula's spruce bark beetle country.

Given dry weather and wind, a crowning wildfire on the scale last seen in 1996's Big Lake fire is more likely than ever and it would be unstoppable, foresters say.

Vean Noble, a forestry technician for the state Division of Forestry, said that when he first moved to the Peninsula in 1982, it was known as the "asbestos forest" because its moisture-filled white spruce trees resisted the spread of wildfire. But now 1.4 million acres of that forest is infested with tree-killing spruce bark beetles.

"Nineteen years later, we are the bomb ready to go off," Noble told the Anchorage Daily News.

An exercise was held Thursday on the Peninsula to test how agencies would react to a fire emergency. A similar exercise was held Saturday in Anchorage's Hillside neighborhood. Some 150 people were evacuated from their homes as state and city fire and emergency response agencies tested their disaster readiness.

"It could happen so easily. It just takes one careless person, and we all suffer," said homeowner Marcia Harth who admits losing sleep worrying about wildfire.

During last week's test, a relatively new computer modeling program was used to test Forestry employees and those from Alaska State Troopers, the Red Cross, the National Guard, local fire departments and other agencies. The program forecasts the spread of fires, given the types of trees and weather conditions.

For the test, participants assumed it was a dry, windy day on Memorial Day weekend. The imaginary wildfire sparked near the Sterling Highway at South Cohoe Loop and raged north into a wooded residential area. About all the participants could do was warn residents to evacuate.

"The ugly reality is we do not have the resources on the Kenai Peninsula to catch and put a fire like this out," Noble said.

He said people who live in the woods need to take responsibility for that choice by clearing defensible space, having a plan and a list of precious items.

"When I roll up to a subdivision and I see eight to 10 houses with their wood piles away from house and nearby trees limbed up, I can defend some of those houses," he said.

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