State cuts fire breaks on wildfire-prone land near Delta Junction

a fire break
A heavy masticator like this was among the pieces of heavy equipment used by state Forestry and a contractor to clear vegetation from the fuel break the agency cut in an area west of the Delta River and the City of Delta Junction. The masticator knocks down trees and then grinds them up into chips. (From Alaska Division of Forestry)

The state Division of Forestry has cleared a wide swath of trees and vegetation from a fire-prone area west of Delta Junction. It’s one of several fuel breaks that Forestry has cleared over the past year to protect other communities around the state from wildfire.

a lumber masticator
The masticator, mounted in front of a piece of heavy equipment, grinds trees into chips with heavy steel teeth. (From Alaska Division of Forestry)

Division crews used earthmovers and other equipment last winter, while the ground was frozen, to clear a 300-foot-wide, 13-mile-long swath of forest west of the Delta River. That’s where several big wildfires have burned in recent years, like the Oregon Lakes Fire that blackened 35,000 acres in 2019.

“That area has a got a frequent fire history,” says Norm McDonald, who heads up Forestry’s Fairbanks-based fire and aviation operations. “The combination of fire starts and the wind — that’s just an area of concern for us.”

McDonald says agency officials have long considered cutting a fuel break in the area, to eliminate vegetation that feeds a fire and to create safe areas for staging crews to fight wildfires. And the Oregon Lakes Fire, along with increased state and federal funding for wildfire prevention, motivated them to get the job done.

a map
Forestry has completed the 13-mile-long fuel break west of the Delta River and the City of Delta, as shown by red line at left. The agency hopes to begin work late next year on another, longer fuel break northwest of the first project. (From Alaska Division of Forestry)

“It gives us a toe-hold,” McDonald said, “a place where we can safely put firefighters to protect whatever values that we identified.”

That toe-hold is the 349-acre fuel break, west of the Delta River and the city of Delta Junction on state land near military training areas that are littered with unexploded bombs and other munitions.

“We know it was used actively by the military for training, and we know there’s unexploded ordnance out there,” McDonald said. “So we have not and will not put firefighters in there.”

North of that area, there are several cabins scattered about and structures that are part of the faith-based Whitestone community, where about 60 people live. The area is vulnerable to wildfires sometimes sparked by military training that can spread quickly through dry, dense vegetation, often driven by high winds.

a map
The green lines show phases 1 and 2 of the the Delta River-West project. The second, longer fuel break to north and west of the first project will offer more wildfire protection for cabins and the Whitestone community. The red-shaded area shows the extent of the 2019 Oregon Lakes Fire. (From Alaska Division of Forestry)

“Having a pre-identified or pre-established fuels break in that area just makes a lot of sense,” McDonald said in an interview Wednesday.

He said Forestry hopes to begin work on the bigger phase 2 of the Delta River-West project late next year. He says it’s part of Forestry’s “proactive approach to fire management” that’s being applied statewide.

“We’ve got projects going in Fairbanks and Kenai and Anchorage and Mat-Su Valley. So, across the state, people will notice more fuel-reduction activity than we’ve ever had.”

The Sunset Fuel Break in the Mat-Su, for example, which was completed last month, will help protect the communities of Houston, Meadow Lakes and Wasilla.

a fire break
Forestry and its contractor stacked larger-diameter trees cut during the project to make them available to local residents with permits to cut firewood in the project area. (From Alaska Division of Forestry)

McDonald says state and federal fire officials believe fuel-reduction projects are more important now that climate change has made wildfire seasons start earlier and last longer, with larger and more destructive fires.

He says fuel breaks also offer another benefit, in the form of firewood

“We found people are excited to have a fuel break that protects their community,” he said, “but they’re also really excited to have a place to get firewood.”

McDonald says area residents can contact their local Forestry office to find out how to apply for a permit to pick up firewood left over from the projects, once they’re completed.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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