OPINION: Spring is the worst time to consider lighting up burn piles in Alaska
May 12th | Carey Restino
It is that time of year again - the time of year when the snow recedes and the dead, dry debris of winter appears all around us. And it's not pretty. Most Alaskans are quickly inspired to fling open their doors, head outside and attempt to clean up. We rake leaves, remove dead limbs and tackle the inevitable junk piles that are only visible for this tiny window before the green of summer envelops them. Naturally, many of us assemble a pile of things to burn as we do our annual spring cleanup. After all, it's beautiful out! A little breeze. Sunshine. Why not?
Every couple of years, some community or other in Alaska finds out exactly why not. This is the time of year when many areas of Alaska have the greatest danger from wildfires.
The dry spring weather quickly wicks moisture out of dead grasses and even the slightest breeze can spread fire quicker than you can imagine. This time of year, fires can be caused by the hot exhaust of a four-wheeler driving through grasses, or a spark from sharpening a shovel. They can be caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette butt, or a child playing with matches. Very often, however, they are caused by people burning debris without realizing that the sparks flying up into the air might well start a fire just out of sight, or that the burn pile they started when there was snow on the ground and thought was out will go on to smolder for days, creeping through roots in the soil toward the forest.
Maybe the burn pile was started on a rainy day and no one checked to make sure it was out completely. If you listen to the stories, very few people who start devastating wildfires are blatantly reckless. The current trial of the couple accused of starting the Sockeye Fire in Susitna Valley is a perfect example of that. The couple testified they were burning safely, using precautions, watching the piles carefully. Whether or not they or some other spark started the fire is hard to call, but they certainly wouldn't be the first to have inadvertently started a blaze that charred thousands of acres and destroyed homes and cabins. When it comes to fire, extreme humility is key, as is remembering the risk you take when you do anything that could start a fire.
As we prepare to weather wildfire season once again, there is a lot you can do as a land and homeowner to protect yourself from risk should a wildfire start. Studies have shown that when wildfire strikes, it is not the wall of flames racing past your house that typically causes a home to burn, it is tiny embers that are left behind in gutters, under porches, in wood piles or on dry grasses that then start a fire long after the main front has passed by.
Look at your property from that perspective. What things can you do to reduce that risk? Storing fuel tanks and firewood away from the side of your residence is a big help, as is keeping a mowed circle around your home with trees limbed up several feet.
Another factor to consider is how easy it is for firefighters to find and reach your home. If you have great defensible space around your home, but your driveway is a wall of trees, firefighters might not be able to make it to your home to help. It is also dangerous if you need to get out in a hurry. In emergency situations, firefighters look for the most defendable homes to concentrate their finite resources. There are wonderful resources provided by the national Firewise program explaining more details about how to keep your home safe from wildfire at firewise.org.
More important, however, is to resist the urge to light a match in the first place. Fall and winter are much better times to burn debris in Alaska. Throw a tarp over your pile to keep your debris dry and come back to it later in the year, or get a chipper and turn your debris into mulch or compostable material. When it's really warm and dry, be cautious even with warming fires, and check in with your local fire suppression agencies on what the fire restrictions currently are before you do anything fire-related.
As anyone who has started a wildfire can tell you, a clean yard or a roasted marshmallow is just not worth the risk.