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.

Unique display of results from fire effects study

Lake Clark fire effects
Screen shot from the fire effects study portal about a fire in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

The Alaska National Park Service Fire Ecology crew returned to the site of the Currant Creek Fire in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska one year after it burned in order to collect data about the effects of the fire. They created an interactive map tour of their findings, which turned out to be a pretty interesting educational tool.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Traci.

Vegetation treatments reduced structure loss on Alaska fire

Vegetation treatments and pre-constructed fuel breaks in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge helped firefighters protect homes that might otherwise have burned in the Funny River Fire on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska in May.

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Wildfire briefing, June 2, 2014

Rescued wolf pups to find home

Wolf pup at Alaska Zoo

The five abandoned wolf pups that were rescued by firefighters on the Funny River Fire on March 27 are doing well and will be adopted by the Minnesota Zoo, located south of Minneapolis-St. Paul in Apple Valley, Minnesota. The pups will remain at the Alaska Zoo until veterinarians are certain the animals are old and healthy enough for transport. When found last week, they weighed about 2.5 pounds apiece and suffered from dehydration and punctures from porcupine quills.

Thirty five applicants awarded funding for their fire research projects

The Joint Fire Science Program announced that 35 applicants have received funding for their proposed fire-related research. The topics include smoke, fuels treatment effectiveness, fire behavior and effects, bats and fire, people and fire, and more.

Fire Training in Pennsylvania

New York Times obituary for Robert Sallee

typical smokejumpers Mann Gulch Fire Ford Trimotor aircaft
Typical smokejumpers and their equipment around the time of the Mann Gulch Fire, with their Ford Trimotor aircaft.

On May 29 we wrote about the death of Robert Sallee, the last survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, and later we linked to some rare photos of the incident.

Surprisingly, the New York Times on May 31 published an obituary of Mr. Sallee. John N. Maclean pointed it out to us, saying that he learned some things from the article. After the death of his father, Norman Maclean, John helped to edit the almost finished Young Men and Fire, the book his father wrote about the fire. John later wrote several books of his own about wildland fires, the latest being The Esperanza Fire.

Below is another photo related to the fire. It was taken in Mann Gulch by Alan Thomas, who was the editor at the University of Chicago Press who worked on Young Men and Fire with the Macleans.

Mann Gulch,
Mann Gulch. Photo by Alan Thomas of the University of Chicago Press.

Colorado Fire Chief talks about how climate change has affected his job — and his life

The video below features Elk Creek, Colorado fire chief Bill McLaughlin, whose department fought the Lower North Fork Fire in 2012 that killed three residents and burned 4,140 acres. “Climate change is very real,” says McLaughlin. “It’s changed my entire life.”

Firefighters rescue wolf pups

Medics Eric Zucker and Alicia Renfer rehydrate and remove porcupine quills from a wolf pup
Medics Eric Zucker and Alicia Renfer rehydrate and remove porcupine quills from a wolf pup. KNWR photo by Stephen Miller.

From LiveScience:

Firefighters rescued five wolf pups from an abandoned den Tuesday (March 27) as they battled the massive Funny River Fire in southern Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The pups had not been hurt by the blaze, according to a Facebook post by firefighters with the Kenai Wildlife National Refuge, who discovered the den.

Medics with the fire crew fed the fuzzy brown puppies glucose (sugar water) and plucked porcupine quills from their skin. In reward, they got some excited licks from the tiny pups. With help from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the litter was taken to Anchorage, where they await a permanent home.

The pups are being treated and housed at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, where they are on antibiotics for the porcupine quill wounds. Since the pups have been handled by humans, they might not be candidates for release back into the wild.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge firefighter Brian Nichols with wolf pup
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge firefighter Brian Nichols with wolf pup. KNWR photo.

Our primary coverage of the Funny River fire is HERE.

Satellite photos of Funny River Fire

Funny River Fire in Atmospheric Cyclone
Funny River Fire in atmospheric cyclone, via Discover Magazine.

Discover Magazine has a very interesting animation from a weather satellite, showing the smoke from the Funny River Fire on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska being swept up into a huge cyclonic system over the northern Pacific. The image above is a screen grab, to which we added the arrows and the smoke and fire labels, but check out the video animation.

Funny River Fire, Landsat
Funny River Fire, Landsat, false 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.

NASA has released photos of the Funny River Fire at Soldotna, Alaska taken May 20 at 1:23 local time by a Landsat satellite a day after the fire started on the 19th. We added a red line to the photos that represent the fire perimeter at 12:20 a.m. on May 29, 2014. In the false color photo above, the infrared sensor can see through some of the smoke and detects the heat, shown as orange, on the east and west fire edges.

The photo below is true color, as would be seen by the human eye.

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.
Funny River Fire May 25
Funny River Fire. Photo taken from the ground on May 25, 2014 by Josh Turnbow.

Our primary coverage of the Funny River fire is HERE.