State biologist's shotgun shells triggered fire

Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2002

ANCHORAGE - State biologists using firecracker shotgun shells to scare off an aggressive moose started a 100,000-acre wildfire in Alaska's Interior last month.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Monday that the biologists were conducting a moose calf-collaring program about 20 miles south of McGrath on May 22 when an aggressive cow moose charged the two.

One of the two fired a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with "cracker" shells. The shells are essentially firecrackers that explode shortly after being fired. Nonlethal, they are used regularly by game biologists to scare off animals.

The shell landed on dry grass and quickly began to burn.

"By the time they could run over to where it detonated, it was more of a fire than they could put out," said Cathie Harms, a regional game management biologist in Fairbanks.

The biologists immediately notified state fire officials in McGrath, but by the time smoke jumpers arrived later that day, the fire was out of control, said Bill Beebe of the Alaska Division of Forestry.

The fire roared north through tinder-dry grass, brush and black spruce. It eventually burned to within six miles of McGrath and might have entered the town of 400 had the wind blown west rather than north.

"We understand that they have their work to do, and that it's dangerous work. They have to protect their people," Beebe said. But, he added, "we would hope something else, some other technology, would come up in the future" that would allow biologists to scare off moose or other game without flammable side effects.

Biologists working during periods of high fire danger might get additional training or firefighting tools, he said.

Harms said her agency is reviewing the fire but did not know of any pending disciplinary actions against the biologists. "We're not aware of any mistakes our staff made," she said.

The $3 million cost of fighting the fire will be split between the state and federal governments, which own the land that burned.

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