Coal seam fires burning in Alaska

French Gulch Fire

The 108-acre French Gulch Fire, a coal seam fire burning about 5 miles east of the Parks Highway near Healy, Alaska.

The Alaska Division of Forestry is monitoring two, and possibly three, coal seam fires that popped up near Healy as a result of the recent hot, dry, windy weather.

The larger of the three fires, the 108-acre French Gulch Fire, was reported just after 7 p.m. on Sunday when somebody spotted smoke up the Healy Creek Valley. It is burning about 5 ½ miles east of the Parks Highway behind the Usibelli Coal Mine.

As of Monday afternoon, the fire was creeping and smoldering in tundra with minimal activity in the hardwoods, reported Incident Commander Shelby Majors with the Alaska Division of Forestry. The fire is in an area that has burned several times from previous coal seam fires and no structures are threatened, he said.

“It’s burning within a fire scar within a fire scar within a fire scar,” is how Mr. Majors put it.

There were three state forestry firefighters on scene and a state-contracted helicopter was used Sunday to drop water on the fire. The state borrowed a helicopter from the National Park Service on Monday to drop more water on the western edge of the fire. The plan is to prevent the fire from spreading west toward the highway and let it burn itself out using natural barriers, Mr. Majors said.

“We’re going to pretty much let it do its own thing,” he said. “The primary activity is along the southeast corner and it’s working itself into a snow field and rocks so it will be running out of fuel in the next day or two.”

Another, much smaller coal seam fire was detected on Sunday about 12 miles north of the French Gulch Fire, Mr. Majors said. That fire was only about 5-feet-by-5 feet and no suppression action was being taken because it was in an old burn area with minimal spread potential, he said.

A third fire was reported Monday morning about 5 miles north of the French Gulch Fire. That fire, which was estimated at 25 acres as of Monday afternoon, is also suspected to be a coal seam fire but that has not been confirmed, according to Mr. Majors. It too is burning tundra in an old fire scar and the potential for spread is minimal so there are no suppression efforts being taken as of Monday afternoon.

Coal seam fires are a common occurrence in the area and occasionally come to life when the conditions are right.

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From Alaska Division of Forestry

Coal and coal seam fires reported on Wildfire Today.

 

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Contemplating the Alaska fire season

grizzly bear

A grizzly bear near Bill Gabbert’s campsite in Denali National Park in Alaska. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

It can be a fool’s errand to attempt to predict the severity of a wildfire season. Using past weather data to predict the nature and number of future fires often fails.

But an article written by Ben Boettger for the Peninsula Clarion is more intelligent than most about discussing what affects a fire season and what this one might look like.

Below are some excerpts from his article:

…[Meteorologist Sharon Alden of the Alaska Fire Service’s predictive office] said there is not a correlation between a warm winter and a busy fire season, nor a correlation between a less-snowy winter and a busy fire season.

“However, there is a correlation between snowpack and the early fire season—how fast things melt out, how soon fire season starts,” Alden said.

Alden said that the intensity of fire season is more tied to precipitation than temperature, leading Fire Services to begin early preparation during the critical months of spring.

“In early spring, before green-up, the forest fuels are dryer,” Alden said. “When you have green-up, when you have trees fleshing out and new green grass is growing, you have more moisture around and it becomes a little less receptive to getting a fire started.”

In addition to leaving less moisture on the ground, a lack of snow contributes to an early fire season through its effect on grass, since grass crushed down by snow burns less easily than standing grass. Kristi Bulock, fire management officer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service region that includes the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, said that the locally-abundant calamogrostis grass is a particularly good wildfire fuel.

“One of the concerns we have this year is that without the snowpack, the grass is still three feet tall,” Bulock said. “It’s up and it’s fluffy, and it’s available for burning, where generally, under a good snowpack, it would be matted down. And then as we start getting green-up we would start getting green shoots in between, and that would lessen the potential for that fuel to carry fire. But if you look out your window now you see these giant patches of cured grass… if we have any kind of ignition source — a cigarette, somebody dragging a chain on the road — the potential could be there for it to really move through that grass…”

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Secretary of Interior’s comments during Senate hearing

On February 24 Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, testified at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The primary focus of the hearing was the Department’s budget for Fiscal  Year 2016. The video of the webcast can be seen here. The proceedings begin at 18:40.

Senator Lisa Murkowski

Senator Lisa Murkowski

The Chair of the Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, recently  threatened to cut the budget of the Department of the Interior in retaliation for the Obama administration’s proposal to set aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. A severe budget reduction could result in the loss of jobs within the Department. Senator Murkowski began the hearing by stating her reservations with the decision to designate the wilderness areas.

Below are excerpts from Secretary Jewell’s prepared remarks on the subject of wildland fire. The complete text is here:

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“The budget renews the call for a new funding framework for wildland fire suppression, similar to how the costs for other natural disasters are met. The initiative proposes base level funding of 70 percent of the 10-year average for suppression costs within the discretionary budget and an additional $200 million available in the event of the most severe fire activity, which comprises only one percent of the fires but 30 percent of the costs. Wildland fire continues to be one our most important land management challenges. In January I issued Secretarial Order 3336 that recognizes the critical importance of fire in protecting, conserving, and restoring the health of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem on which rural economies, wildlife – including the sage grouse – and a way of life depend. Shortly, we will be releasing our strategy for the 2015 fire season, to be followed by a long-term strategy for addressing rangeland fire prevention, management, and restoration. On a broader scale, the Department is firmly committed to the National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy and the three goals of restoring and maintaining fire-resilient landscapes, creating fire adapted communities, and safe and effective operations. In support of those goals, the budget reflects an integrated approach to wildland fire management, including $30.0 million for a Resilient Landscapes program to create landscapes that are resilient to wildfire through long-term, landscape scale, place-based projects. Resilient Landscape program projects will be accomplished through collaborative partnerships that include non-fire bureau resources and land management programs along with other Federal, tribal, State and non-governmental partners. The budget continues to include funding for the Fuels Management program to improve the integrity and resilience of forests and rangelands, contribute to community adaptation to fire, and improve our ability to safely and appropriately respond to wildfires.

Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior

Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior

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The 2016 request for the Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $805.5 million without the proposed fire cap adjustment, and $1.05 billion including the adjustment. The request includes $268.6 million for fire suppression within the base budget, which is 70 percent of the 10 year suppression average spending. The cap adjustment of $200.0 million would only be used for the most severe fires, since it is one percent of the fires that cause 30 percent of the costs. The new budget framework for Wildland Fire Management eliminates the need for additional funds through the FLAME Act.

The 2016 budget requests $30.0 million in a new Resilient Landscapes subactivity to build on resilient landscapes activities supported by Congress in 2015. Congress provided $10.0 million for resilient landscapes activities in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Act by designating that amount within Fuels Management. While fuels treatments and resilient landscapes activities are complementary and synergistic, they also have distinct differences, including the methodology for prioritizing place-based projects and a leveraged funding requirement for resilient landscapes. Establishing a separate subactivity for Resilient Landscapes will assist the Department and Wildland Fire Management bureaus in tracking funds obligated and program accomplishments. The $20.0 million increase in funding will enable the Wildland Fire Management program to take better advantage of the shared goals of bureau resource management programs to treat large landscapes to achieve and maintain fire-adapted ecosystems that both reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and achieve restoration and other ecological objectives. The increase for Resilient Landscapes is partially offset with a program realignment of $17.7 million in the Fuels Management program from 2015; total funds for the combined Fuels Management and Resilient Landscapes subactivities are $14.3 million above 2015.”

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Alaska Governor cuts Wildland Fire Academy and 16 jobs in DNR

Funny River Fire, Landsat,

Funny River Fire, Landsat, true color, 1:13 p.m. local time, May 20, 2014. The red line is the fire perimeter at 12:29 a.m. on May 29, 2014. The clouds are pyrocumulus, created by the fire.

Nine months after the Funny River Fire burned more than 195,000 acres south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, the state Department of Natural Resources has eliminated the Wildland Fire Academy as well as 16 jobs within the agency after budget cuts by Governor Bill Walker.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Juneau Empire:

With the devastating, weeks-long Funny River Fire just months behind Alaskans, the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildland Fire Academy is facing elimination.

The program, which trains civilians as forest firefighters, did not make the cut when Gov. Bill Walker trimmed the state budget this month.

“It takes the young folks from the villages and trains them up and gives them a career path for firefighting,” DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels said at a Monday Senate finance committee meeting. “It’s just one of those things where we’re looking at reducing our budgets and we have to make reductions somewhere.”

Also hit was the Division of Forestry’s Southwest region firefighting staff. Through the governor’s cuts, the staff, based in McGrath, would be diminished from 22 people to six. Combined with the elimination of the fire academy, it’s a $1.1 million cut.

[Senator Peter] Micciche [who represents the Funny River area on the Kenai Peninsula] said after the meeting that the fire changed the way he thinks of essential services, and he would now definitely include firefighting on his list of state must-haves.

[DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed] Fogels said the state will bring in additional fire crews from the Lower 48 if need be, something the state will then need to pay for at a cost that “will be more expensive than if we had our own fire crews.”

More information about the Funny River Fire:
Wildfire Today’s primary coverage of the Funny River Fire last May.
Satellite photos of the Funny River Fire.
Firefighters rescue wolf pups on the Funny River Fire.

 

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Sen. Murkowski threatens retaliatory budget cut for the DOI

muskoxen

Muskoxen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo.

In retaliation for the Obama administration’s proposal to set aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has threatened to cut the budget of the Department of the Interior. The wilderness designation would prevent any chance of oil exploration in the area, which would infuriate many Republican politicians.

Four agencies in the DOI  employ large numbers of wildland firefighters — the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. If Senator Murkowski is able to impose a large cut in the DOI budget, perhaps hundreds or thousands of employees could lose their jobs, with some of them being firefighters.

But the Senator says “jobs are transitory”.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Alaska Public Media:

…But as chair of the Energy Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski has some level of oversight over the Department of the Interior. Murkowski says Secretary Sally Jewell will appear before her twice in the coming weeks.

“She will be before my energy committee on the Tuesday next, as she presents the budget,” Murkowski said. “And then I will have her in front of my Interior appropriations subcommittee on March 4, so I’m going to have plenty of opportunity to engage with her.”

Murkowski notes she is in a position to affect the Department of Interior’s budget.

“If budgets are reduced and people lose their jobs, that is an outcome. Right now, what people in this region seem to be concerned about is losing their land. A job is transitory,” Murkowski said. “This Secretary is going to have this job for just two more years, this President is going to have this job for less than two years, but the land – the land – that’s what I’m here to protect. This is what we need to be fighting for. I’m not going to be fighting for some short-term job for a bureaucrat.”

In response, Jewell says she is “hopeful” that there will not be retaliatory cuts, and notes the Department provides aerial mapping of Alaska and monitors earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the state.

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Alaska Supreme Court rules on lawsuit over burnout

Rex Creek Fire

The Rex Creek Fire on August 4, 2009, part of the Railbelt Complex in Alaska. Photo by ADF.

In 2009 firefighters in Alaska conducted a burnout operation on the Railbelt Complex of fires 45 mile southwest of Fairbanks. Part of the fire was on private land and four of the landowners filed a lawsuit asking for $100,000 each charging that the burnout was an illegal “taking” of their property. They also charged “negligence and intentional misconduct”, saying the state failed to adequately mop up after rains knocked down the fires, which later re-ignited.

The Alaska Supreme Court, reviewing a previous decision by a Superior Court, ruled that the landowners may be eligible for compensation.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Newsminer:

A Superior Court judge dismissed the eminent domain claim in December 2010, finding the state’s actions “did not constitute a taking because they were a valid exercise of its police powers,” and dismissed the negligence and intentional misconduct claims on the grounds of government immunity, according to court documents.

The landowners appealed the decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling affirmed the Superior Court’s dismissal of the negligence and intentional misconduct claims but reversed the dismissal of the eminent domain claim, “remanding it to the Superior Court for further consideration of whether the specific exercise of the state’s police powers at issue here was justified by the doctrine of necessity,” according to the opinion documents.

“The doctrine applies only if the state demonstrates the existence of ‘imminent danger and an actual emergency giving rise to actual necessity,’ an inquiry that is fact-specific,” the Supreme Court’s 28-page ruling states.

The landowners’ attorney, William Satterberg, was pleased with the ruling and expects the case to now be decided by a jury. He said the state did not need to set the burnout fires on his clients’ properties and that the fire was “basically a fire of convenience.”

“It was easier to light it there than it was to do it a mile away,” he said. “We do know they had lots of time, they could have gone down a mile away from their property. They thought about it for 11 days before they did it.”

Another excerpt from a previous article in the Newsminer:

“The point is, what’s a piece of burned-out property worth versus a piece of beautiful lakeside property?” said Bill Satterberg, who is representing the landowners. “You can’t just go around destroying people’s property and not pay for it.”

The Railbelt Complex of fires eventually burned over 600,000 acres.

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” made its first drop on a live fire in North America on the fire. It was done at no charge to the fire, with the company wanting to demonstrate the capability of the 20,000-gallon air tanker.

Evergreen's 747 "Supertanker"

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” drops on the Railbelt Complex of fires in Alaska, July 31, 2009.

Below is a video of a large burnout operation on the Railbelt Complex, July 16, 2009, narrated by the Incident Commander. .

We first wrote about the lawsuit in 2009.

UPDATE, December 1, 2014: As Emmett pointed out in a comment this situation has some similarities to a lawsuit filed by a Montana rancher over the 2000 Ryan Gulch Fire. The heart of that case was the contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring or burning out, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of a privately owned ranch.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Keith.

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