Summer in Alaska means wildfires and while the vast majority of scorched acreage is usually in remote areas of the state, there’s always the possibility of a fire getting out of control in a city, burning homes and maybe even injuring or killing people.
That’s what worries Anchorage Fire Chief Doug Schrage, who says, from his perspective, a fast-moving wildfire is the single biggest threat the city faces. So, Schrage says, the Anchorage Fire Department is stepping up wildfire-fighting efforts this summer with better preparation and planning.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Doug Schrage: A large fire could escape our containment lines. It could jump roads, if the weather conditions and the wind and the terrain were just right. Such a fire could move very quickly up the Hillside, either in Eagle River or Anchorage, and consume many people’s very expensive homes. And that’s what keeps me awake at night. We have a very effective structural firefighting force in Anchorage. We’re very good at what we do. We go to structure fires, and we extinguish them quickly and efficiently. We save people all the time. And we aren’t really set up to be a wildfire-fighting force. That’s something that I hope to change.
Casey Grove: Gotcha. I want to ask you more about preparations and planning for this summer. But first, just to kind of remind folks, I mean, we’re maybe not seeing early summer conditions right now, it hasn’t been exactly warm, there’s plenty of snow still melting here in Anchorage, but summer is surely to come, I hope. And what are some of the ways that fires get started in an urban setting that people should know about?
DS: Well, in Anchorage, we really have two fire seasons every year. We have the pre-greenup fire season and then the post-greenup fire season. The pre-greenup fire season is just about to occur. And what this is, is when the snow has begun melting or has melted, and it exposes all these dead grasses and very fine fuels that dry out quickly. And they pose a real problem. And then we have the the normal fire season once the trees have leafed out, and the plants have bloomed. And the weather begins to become, starts to get hotter and drier. And that’s when we really start to worry as well. To the question about how these fires start, most of the fires that are started in Anchorage are human caused. And some actually, I would say many, are started by campers — municipal campers, urban campers, people that are having warming fires or cooking fires in parks and wooded areas — and sometimes those fires escape.
CG: Yeah. You mentioned the planning that you’re hoping to do and to maybe change things a little bit this summer. What does that mean? Does that mean different training? Does that mean, you know, putting firefighters and equipment in the right places? What does that look like?
DS: Well, at one time, the Anchorage Fire Department had what we called a Wildfire Mitigation Office, and it closed in 2008 for budgetary reasons. And one of the main purposes of the Wildfire Mitigation Office was to develop and manage the community wildfire protection plan, which is in existence today, but it hasn’t been updated since 2008. So, in fact, very little actual planning or preparations have been done in the last 15 years since 2008. So what we hope to do is to reconstitute the Wildfire Mitigation Office here in Anchorage. And we are working very hard to get some federal funding to support this. We have some state funding available to us. And then we have money that was appropriated to us for fuels mitigation.
When we stand up this wildfire mitigation program, there will be four main components to it. There will be community planning, which will help us to improve the ability of residents to escape from a fire. It will have a fuels management component, which will be fuels risk assessments, and some of that work’s undergoing now, and some fuel treatments, including thinning, shaded fuel brakes, fuel removal and so forth. There will be a public education component to it, which will expand our ability to communicate with the public about how they can prepare for a wildfire, and what they can do when a wildfire occurs. And then, fourthly, is the training and operations component. So we’ll use some of that money to better equip our firefighters with some pumps and small trucks and hose and personal protective equipment and provide training to our personnel.
CG: You know, given that it sounds like there are more preparations to do — more planning, more training and that there may be some changes you’d like to see this summer focused on the possibility of a wildfire in Anchorage — how prepared is the Anchorage Fire Department right now to deal with that problem?
DS: We are more prepared this year than we have been in recent years. This year, we just finished several weeks of wildfire fighting training and exercises with all of our line personnel. These are the shift workers that are on duty each day. And the training we provided was training that we haven’t previously provided, or at least not in many years. So we introduced our structural firefighters into a little bit more sophisticated wildfire training tactics. So in that way, we’re better prepared. We are better equipped this year than we have been in the past. We do have much more to do in terms of preparation and community education and planning and training and operations. But I feeling better this year than I did this time last year.