In the Aftermath of the Card Street Fire, A Refuge Re-Opens

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area is just east of Sterling where the Card Street Fire first ignited. The area spans about 45,000 acres but only accounts for a little over 2 percent of the massive Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Despite the Skilak’s size, Refuge Manager Andy Loranger says it was still an inconvenience to the Refuge’s visitors when the fire forced the recreation area to close.

“It means that folks are not able to hike their favorite trail or maybe camp in their favorite campground. This is a very popular time for use of refuge boat ramps to access the Skilak Lake and the Kenai River,” says Loranger.

The recreation area was shut down on June 17th. Once the fire was sufficiently contained the Skilak and its amenities reopened. It was closed for a total of 16 days. Loranger doubts this year’s closure or the danger posed by the Funny River Fire will have lasting impacts on the Refuge’s reputation.

“I don’t think so. I think short term there were folks that were disappointed and certainly inconvenienced. Even as large and longer term as the Funny River Fire was last year much of it was in the Refuge backcountry,” says Loranger.

Although the Card Street Fire and most other fires on the peninsula are started by people, Loranger says fire is still part of life in Alaska and he thinks people recognize that.

“Natural fires have occurred here historically and they’re a part of what we call the Natural Disturbance Regime. There’s a regeneration of the forest that occurs and animal populations respond to those changes,” says Loranger.

In the coming years biologists will study the effects both the Funny River Fire and the Card Street Fire have had on habitat within the Refuge. The Refuge already has monitoring programs used to collect data on vegetation. They will use satellite imaging and aerial photography combined with in person observations to get started. There are also programs in place to study wildlife populations.

“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game very actively monitors many of the big game species on the Kenai Peninsula as an example. That kind of work will continue,” says Loranger.

Loranger expects to see differences between impacts from the Card Street and Funny River Fires. The Funny River Fire started about a month earlier than the Card Street.

“Things were greener. The duff layer, which is the organic layer right at the ground level, the duff moistures were probably higher. The duff was actually less dry during the Funny River Fire so we did not have a lot of combustion of the duff layer as opposed to this fire,” says Loranger.

Loranger says the differing moisture levels mean it’s likely more of the duff layer was consumed in the Card Street. So we can probably expect to see a very different vegetative response to each fire. In the years after wildfire, biologists are generally curious which plant species will grow back first and how they will change the ecology of the area.

“As an example, a species like moose is going to respond very favorably to hardwood regeneration and willow regeneration that would occur following fire,” says Loranger.

Loranger also asks questions about what a warming climate means for the landscape’s revegetation… and will the fire give invasive species a leg up in the area?

And will the fire give invasive plant species an opportunity to thrive?

“There could be many other relatively important questions to answer,” says Loranger.

It will take many years to answer them. In the meantime visitors are welcome to enjoy all areas of the Refuge. But, Loranger says everyone should be cautious travelling through burned areas. He’s most concerned about people falling into ash pits.

“They’ll show up as a sort of white ash at the ground’s surface. Those are areas that might actually still pose a hazard in terms of heat as well as, you could actually sink down into an area that is still burning,” says Loranger.

The Card Street Fire came to life about a month ago on June 15th. It is still burning although it is now mostly contained. According to the Division of Forestry it now rests at 8,876 acres.

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Quinton Chandler is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.