Fire & Ice: BLM AFS, USARAK kick off 2019 prescribed fire season

Photo of A BLM AFS firefighter uses a Terra Torch to light a woody pile during a prescribed burn in the Donnelly Training Area in February 2019. On average, the piles measured 15-feet-by-15-feet and 15-feet tall. Photo by Chris Demers, BLM AFS

A BLM AFS firefighter uses a Terra Torch to light a woody pile during a prescribed burn in the Donnelly Training Area in February 2019. On average, the piles measured 15-feet by 15-feet with logs stacked about 15 feet tall. Photo by Chris Demers, BLM AFS

Conducting a prescribed burn operation doesn’t typically involve the use of ice bridges and snowmachines.

Unless it’s in Alaska.

BLM Alaska Fire Service and U.S. Army Alaska kicked off their 2019 prescribed fire season on Feb. 18 by burning woody debris piles in the remote Donnelly Training Area south and west of Delta Junction. The operation involved the use of trucks, side-by-side utility vehicles (UTVs), snowmachines, Terra Torches, a bulldozer, three excavators and a drone when burning approximately 1,000 woody piles dispersed across an 18-mile fuel break.

“The actual burning isn’t complex, but the logistical end is,” said Burn Boss Chris Demers, a fuels specialist with the BLM AFS Military Zone. “It brings in a whole new level of challenges.”

Photo of an AFS firefighter using a Terra torch mounted on a six-wheeled UTV to burn woody debris piles.

AFS firefighters use a Terra torch mounted on six-wheeled UTV to burn woody debris piles as part of a hazardous fuels reduction project conducted to mitigate the risk of wildfire on military lands burning onto adjacent land. Photo by Chris Friar, BLM AFS

Prescribed fire is set only under certain conditions that take into considerations the safety of the public and firefighters, weather and the probability of meeting burn objectives. In this case, the objective is to remove woody debris to assist in fire and fuel management and lessen the chance of a wildfire on military lands burning into adjacent State of Alaska land.

Part of the process involves extensive coordination – including semiweekly conference calls during project implementation – with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the National Weather Service in Fairbanks to ensure the wind and weather conditions are conducive for burning and keeping the smoke from impacting communities.

Demers said there were at least three times where the burning was limited or halted due to concerns of smoke impacting populated areas.

Photo of deteriorated ice bridge on the Arkansas Range.

AFS firefighters diverted their route after warmer weather deteriorated the Arkansas Range ice bridge, causing overflow. Photo by Chris Friar, BLM AFS

Temperatures were around zero degrees when BLM AFS firefighters started burning in mid-February. Weather gradually warmed and deteriorated some of the ice bridges used to get to the piles. To ensure their equipment doesn’t get mired in overflow, firefighters are now using an alternative ice road constructed by the Alaska Division of Forestry. Despite the changing snow and ice conditions, there’s still enough moisture present to keep flames in check. That’s a big reason why the prescribed burns are conducted in the spring.

Photo of woody debris piles burning about a 3/4 mile west of the Delta River.

Piles burning on the shearblade line ~3/4 mile west of the Delta River

The piles, located on a new fire break connecting the Delta River to the Little Delta Creek, are composed of a combination of spruce and hardwood trees that were cut over the past few years as part of a hazardous fuels reduction project.

Demers said the burning has been going well since the piles had several years to cure. After a day of burning, contracted equipment – a bulldozer and three excavators –spread out what’s left of the burn pile so they don’t hold heat. After aggressive mop-up efforts are completed, BLM AFS firefighters will continue frequent patrols of the project area over the next several weeks to reduce the likelihood of a reburn.

To help with this, BLM AFS is using an Unmanned Aircraft Systems quadcopter to help monitor the piles in accordance with FAA regulations addressing drones and after gaining approval from Fort Wainwright garrison commander.

Photo of drone pilot Dustin Wessel operating a quadcopter to help monitor the prescribed burn.

Drone pilot Dustin Wessel operates a quadcopter to help monitor the prescribed burn on military lands in February 2019.Photo by Tim Hatfield, BLM AFS

Using the drone with an attached infrared (IR) camera allows the team to observe the burn area from the air and detect remnant hot spots.  This way, firefighters are able to make more use of their time extinguishing the hotspots by seeing them with an IR camera from the air rather than going from pile to pile to locate heat on the ground.

“It’s making it a heck of a lot more efficient,” said Abe Davis, the Military Zone Assistant Fire Management Officer.

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For more information, contact BLM AFS Public Affairs Specialist Beth Ipsen at (907)356-5510 or at eipsen@blm.gov.

About BLM Alaska Fire Service

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) located at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, provides wildland fire suppression services for over 244 million acres of Department of the Interior and Native Corporation Lands in Alaska. In addition, AFS has other statewide responsibilities that include: interpretation of fire management policy; oversight of the BLM Alaska Aviation program; fuels management projects; and operating and maintaining advanced communication and computer systems such as the Alaska Lightning Detection System. AFS also maintains a National Incident Support Cache with a $10 million inventory. The Alaska Fire Service provides wildland fire suppression services for America’s “Last Frontier” on an interagency basis with the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Military in Alaska.

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