FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska – A report released Dec. 15 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that the likelihood of a severe fire season in Alaska, similar to 2015 when more than 5.1 million acres burned, has risen significantly – 34 to 60 percent – due to human-caused climate change. According to the Alaska Division of Forestry, the 2015 Alaska fire season burned the second largest number of acres in Alaska since records began in 1940.
Fire danger during Interior Alaska’s often dry, sunny summers can range from minimal to extreme on a weekly basis, especially on military live-fire ranges. Managing the threat of wildfire while maximizing training time and opportunities for U.S. Army Alaska units is a multi-agency effort coordinated by the Fire Mitigation Community of Interest Working Group, or FMCoI, at Fort Wainwright.
FMCoI members include representatives from U.S. Army Alaska’s Operations, Range Control and Safety offices and the 65th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company and USARAK Aviation Task Force; U.S. Army Garrison Fort Wainwright’s Natural Resources and Resource Management offices, as well as the Fort Wainwright Fire Department; the U.S. Air Force; the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service; and the community of Delta Junction. The group continued working collaboratively in 2016 to reduce and mitigate black spruce and other fuels near active ranges that pose a wildfire threat in both the Yukon and Donnelly training areas.
Controlled burns in the spring and fall bookended a fire season which normally ranges from June through September. The spring prescribed fire projects included 16 military ranges – a total of 62,309 acres – burned. The plan continued throughout the year, with AFS and Army crews cutting and piling brush to not only increase range functionality, but also to prepare for late fall prescribed burns which ended in November.
“These controlled burns remove the dead and decaying vegetation in an effort to reduce the chances of a wildfire,” explained AFS spokesperson Beth Ipsen. “We would much rather burn when conditions are in our favor than end up fighting a wildfire under the worst possible conditions. It would be difficult to contain a fire in Black Spruce when burn conditions are extreme.”
Ipsen said removing the grass now will reduce fire danger around training targets used during the summer, create barriers that could contain an incidental fire and help protect communities from wildfires that could ignite from the use of military weapon ranges and training areas. She said prescribed burning promotes the growth of succulent green forage that is resistant to fire, but is favored by small and large species of wildlife and a benefit their habitat.
Weekly FMCoI meetings throughout the year created an effective collaborative strategy, based on fire science and detailed predictive analysis, to implement a fire waiver process that reduced unnecessary bureaucracy, maximized military training opportunities and prevented fires sparked by military training from escaping military training areas explained Lt. Col. Peter Bonin, former FMCoI chairperson.
“This is not a risk averse effort,” Bonin explained. “The team carefully considers each event, weighing the benefit of training against the risks.
“This season the team successfully accomplished all requested training events even at times under extreme fire conditions – no training event losses due to fire conditions,” Bonin said. “Although training events may have been modified, all requested training was accomplished. This is due to the expertise and effective communication of the team.”
Range fires are an inevitable risk that comes with military training, Bonin said. The challenge is maximizing training opportunities and still preventing fire from escaping control.
“With the business we are in, the tools we use will cause fires. The key is to ensure that those fires are predicted and managed,” Bonin said. “It is inevitable that fires will occur due to the nature of our training. The key is to establish mitigation measures that provide safeguards to prevent escapement.”
Bonin said control measures are established to eliminate or reduce available fuel sources by using methods like controlled burns, and the training events are managed to reduce the threat for the given event by taking into effect conditions such as target locations, munition selections, and preferred training times for differing weather conditions.
~Story and photos by John Pennell, U.S. Army Alaska