Last weekend was circled on my calendar for months. My good friends and I blocked the time and come hell or high water, we were going to take our kids camping.
But then things started going sideways – the unusual heat, the smoke from the massive forest fires burning through the state, the surfeit of biting bugs, the last minute work requests, and the general chaos involved with getting three adults, six kids and three questionably behaved dogs out for a weekend in the woods.
After a flurry of texts back and forth, we decided to ditch our camping plans. The new plan was to meet in Anchorage, hike flattop, and spend time together exploring the city.
On the way to Anchorage, I passed by the Swan Lake fire operation just past Sterling. What a sight that was. Parts of the forest were still smoldering, helicopters were flying over, and crews were everywhere dressed in their heavy fire fighting gear. Signs from residents expressing thanks and encouragement to the fire crews dotted both sides of the highway.
It got me thinking about those grateful residents and what kind of danger they were in. So I called up my friend and former client, Tom Dearlove. Tom is the current manager of the Kenai River Center and he’s a forester and former wildfire fighter. He fought wildfires in Montana and Idaho before he moved to Alaska and before I met him in Dillingham.
I asked Tom what residents around a wildfire should be concerned about and his answer surprised me. He said that there are two kinds of fire a resident should be wary of: the canopy, or crown fire that burns the tops of trees and the creeping, low fire that comes along behind it.
I didn’t know about the creeping fire. I thought a canopy fire was the main event. I didn’t pause to consider the fires at low levels.
The big crown fires, like we saw in those dramatic videos taken along the Sterling Highway, can create their own weather systems as they suck oxygen from the surrounding areas to fuel them. That mixture of air creates funnel clouds that toss flaming embers. According to Tom, embers from a crown fire can travel 8 miles through the air and if they land on something combustible, start a whole new fire.
Obviously for homeowners in the vicinity of a fire, the challenge is not to let your property become that something combustable.
But the threat doesn’t just come from above, ground fires are also something to plan for if you’re living in a fire-prone area. Ground fires are the slower moving but less predictable sidekick of a crown fire. The massive heat from a crown fire can ignite all the hummus that’s below ground starting a whole new challenge for firefighters and property owners.
Once a fire starts burning underneath the ground, it becomes hard to predict and hard to stop.
The new Scout in my house says to always be prepared. So here’s Tom’s advice for homeowners living in a fire-prone area:
- If a crown fire is burning within a 10 mile radius, use soaker hoses to water down your roof if you have cedar shakes. They work.
- Trim up all of the lower limbs on your trees and take down dead trees. If any branches overhang your house, trim them back. You want the lower branches trimmed up 6 to 10 feet. This will prevent ground fires from igniting your trees.
- Clear out all the brush on your property. Especially dead grasses and plants. Make sure any mulch you have on your gardens isn’t combustible.
- Clear out underneath your porch. Look for old paint and dry vegetation and remove it. Also, clean your gutters of anything dry and flammable.
- If you’ve got wood under your staircase or stacked against your house, move it.
- If you’ve got vents in your roof, install fire screens so embers can’t enter the house.
- If a fire gets close, a tripod sprinkler will help keep it at bay.
- If you have a pond, use sump pumps to keep the area around your house watered.
- Create small fuel breaks around your property.
- Keep a bug-out bag ready to go at all times. Winds change, embers fly and fires move quickly.
Whats Next for the Swan Lake Fire Area?
I asked Tom what was in store for the area that burned in the Swan Lake fire. He said that next summer, we’re going to see fireweed everywhere. Native grasses will take over and slowly, birch and poplar will start to come back. Mushroom hunters will be thrilled to see morel mushrooms flourish in the newly-burned areas.
“Wildfires are great for wildlife,” Tom tells me. “Moose, rabbits, and lynx will thrive with all the new grasses to eat and grouse love it, too.”
A whole new cycle of life and growth will come from this wild fire. Including more moose for all you hunters out there.