2022 East Fork Fire highlights importance of proactive firefighting

The 2022 East Fork Fire is the largest fire in recorded history in the Yukon Delta area. Precipitation throughout the year usually prevents large wildfires around the area’s communities, but a recent drought lead to extremely dry surface vegetation that id readily available to be consumed by fire. Locals in the villages of St. Mary’s, Pilot Station, Pitkas Point and Mountain Village were surprised and alarmed, with wildfire being something they see in a distant part of the state on the evening news.

However, this does not mean the surrounding communities were unprepared. The small village of Pilot Station, roughly 15 miles away from St. Mary’s, has implemented a long term and well thought out plan in response to potential wildfire. For five years, former wildland firefighter David Kelly has been managing a local crew that maintains a fuel break around the village, providing a means of protecting the community from wildfire that may threaten Pilot Station.

Although the flames didn’t make it all the way to Pilot Station, the East Fork Fire was able to provide an example towards the benefit of a locally maintained fuel break. Without an already implemented defense against fire, firefighters must essentially create one. When a wildfire is threatening a community, the typical occurrence is a rapid response in the form of aircraft, heavy equipment, and handcrews, where all resources all utilized to attempt and create a barrier between the fire and the values at risk. This construction of fireline is a reactionary, emergency endeavor that often times does not factor local knowledge into its location, can create a strain on local infrastructure, and costs much more than proactive measures.

Bulldozers can do heavy damage to the tundra, retardant from aircraft has to be precisely placed to minimize waterway impact, and the usage of firefighting handcrews requires personnel to work in a dangerous, fast paced, and stressful environment. These methods all have their uses, but during the East Fork Fire, Pilot Station was at a significant defensive advantage because of the preexisting fire break. All that was required was minimal brushing by firefighters, and an earlier than normal cutting of grass by Dave Kelly’s local crew. There was no removal of large trees, no destructive heavy equipment, and no placement of retardant.

Kelly explained that the crew’s local knowledge plays a large part in the placement and specifications of the fire break. The size of the fire break varies based on the amount of burnable vegetation, with Kelly stating the preferred width is “150 feet where we can mainly where the fuel is heavy, with a lot of black spruce.” Black spruce is the major fuel component in the area that can sustain high fire activity; having a substantial buffer around it is essential in slowing the progress of a wildfire.

However, this 150 foot wide buffer is not present throughout the entirety of the fire break. In places that are less susceptible to burning, such as wet hardwoods or swampy areas, the break is around 100 feet wide.

Through this strategic placement, locally maintained fire breaks help to preserve the value of the land; areas where a village may rely on subsistence gathering, or landmarks that hold cultural value to a tribe are carefully considered when actual residents are empowered to protect their own community.

During typical wildfire response, bringing a multitude of firefighting resources into a remote area is also logistically challenging, and creates a strain on local communities. The number of firefighters and support staff needed to fight a large wildfire can be in the range of a small town, where feeding, housing, and disposing of waste from such a large operation can substantially impact a community. Protection of St. Mary’s and surrounding areas due to the East Fork Fire cost millions of dollars, money that has mostly been allocated towards bringing an incident management team and firefighters into a remote and logistically challenging area.

A reactionary emergency response comes with large cost. While projects such as the Pilot Station fuel break do not completely eliminate the need for incident management teams and complex logistical operations, proactivity can substantially decrease logistical needs and burden on fire personnel when wildfire threatens a rural community. Opportunities exist for collaboration between local communities, federal government, and the state to fund projects such as the fuel break created at Pilot Station. These projects not only save money in the long run, due to less of a need for large fire management organizations, but the money that is allocated to such projects gives steady employment and benefits the local economy.

In an extremely rural area such as this, consistent work is much needed and greatly appreciated.

The Pilot Station crew finds pride in their job knowing that the hours spent maintaining the fire break are directly protecting their community. David Kelly emphasized the sense of security Pilot Station receives from the continuously maintained fire break.

“Whenever there’s a fire they think about the fireline,” Kelly said. “I think they feel a lot safer whenever there is a fire or they think about fire nearby.”

The work done by locals instills an intrinsic pride throughout the whole community by being one step ahead when wildfire gets too close for comfort.

At the very least, a locally maintained, proactive fire break can create an anchor point for firefighters, but ideally it can serve as a fully functional, ready to go defense for not if, but when a wildfire threatens a community.

Categories: AK Fire Info, BLM Alaska Fire Service, Fuel Break Project

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