A ‘wise' decision

Program helps reduce wildfire risk


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A firefighter stokes a burn pile as other fires burn in the distance. Crews spent about a week burning the brush and debris.

MATT TUNSETH

That blanket of smoke hanging over the Eagle River Valley recently was actually part of an effort to keep homes in the valley from catching fire.

Crews from the Alaska Division of Forestry spent the week burning piles of trees and brush from a four-acre tract of land near the Driftwood Bay subdivision, a dense grouping of homes that clings to the side of the forested valley. The burns were the final step in a unique partnership between area homeowners and the government designed to reduce the risk of wildfires.

“I really applaud the Drifwood Bay Homeowners Association for taking the steps to do this,” said Anchorage Fire Department Forester John See. “It’ll pay off someday.”

See is in charge of running the Municipality of Anchorage’s Firewise home assessment and cost-sharing program, in which homeowners can get up to 70 percent of cost of clearing trees reimbursed through the Muni. The program is funded through federal grant money that See said won’t be around forever.

“We’re going to run out of money in this program next year,” he said.

For now though, homeowners can still contact See at 267-4902 to request a free property assessment. Once that’s complete, homeowners can apply to be included in the program. If approved, the individual homeowners (or group of homeowners) must then hire a tree-clearing company to do the actual work.

That’s what happened in Driftwood Bay, where residents like Frank Love liked the natural setting — but not the wildfire risks — that came with living in the Eagle River Valley.

Love said homeowners in the area decided that the large tract of spruce-covered land beneath their homes needed to be thinned out. In fact, some residents were hearing from their insurance companies about the risks of living so close to the dense forest.

Last winter, the homeowners association (HOA) decided to do something about the situation, voting to participate in the program. That triggered an assessment by See, who visited the property and came up with a plan of action. From there, the HOA hired a contractor to clear out dead, beetle-killed spruce and other risky trees. Finally, the state crews arrived to burn the piles.

From his back yard overlooking the newly-cleared land, Love said the difference is obvious.

“It’s a world of difference,” said Love, who credited HOA president Laura Demander for moving the project forward.

Where there had once been a tangle of old spruce trees and underbrush, Love now sees widely-spaced trees and a bare forest floor.

“It almost looks like a park now instead of a forest of dead trees,” he said.

Love said the natural character of the valley remains.

“We still get the wildlife. We’ll just be able to see them coming now,” he said.

See said that’s the whole idea behind the Firewise program. If dangerous areas are cleared of problem trees and brush, he said, the potential for dangerous fires goes way down.

“This project is taking this neighborhood from a very hazardous, high fire danger potential…to one that’s manageable,” he said.

Because of the neighborhood’s location uphill from the forested valley, See said a raging wildfire could easily race uphill from home to home — much like recent devastating fires in Colorado.

“These homes are close enough that we could see another Colorado scenario,” he said.

Without the help of government funds, Love said it’s likely the clearing project would never have been done.

“It makes it affordable for probably every neighborhood,” he said.

Love said he thinks anyone whose property is at risk of wildfire should call the Municipality as soon as possible to try to take advantage of the program.

“I envision that there’s probably lots of neighborhoods like this in Anchorage,” he said.

Love said the program is a great example of individuals working together with local government to solve a difficult problem.

“It just makes sense,” he said.

 

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com.

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