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For Anchorage Hillside, wildfire danger is real, and 'terrifying'

Nathaniel Herz
John See, a forester with the Anchorage Fire Department, stands in a "shaded fuel break" that was created by a hotshot crew to help slow any potential wildfire moving towards the Stuckagain Heights subdivision. Monday, June 2, 2014. Bill Roth

As Anchorage residents basked in record warmth and a weekslong spell of dry weather last month, a small group was anxiously awaiting rain: the firefighters and foresters responsible for keeping the city safe from wildfires.

While a huge blaze raged on the Kenai Peninsula, some city residents and officials said they were fearful a similar wildfire could break out on the Anchorage Hillside -- a threat, they added, that is very real, and potentially catastrophic for the estimated 30,000 people who live there.

“The more you know, the more terrifying the prospect is,” said Dick Tremaine, a former Assembly member who represented South Anchorage and lives on the Hillside. So far, he added: “We’ve been lucky.”

As the dry days stacked up like cordwood, Jim Vignola, Anchorage’s deputy fire chief for operations, was on edge, too.

Three of the city’s fire engines were off fighting the Kenai blaze. It hadn’t rained in nearly three weeks. Temperature records were set or tied on four days last month, making it the warmest May on record.

A nightmare scenario: A hiker on the trails behind Service High School flicks a cigarette butt, igniting a blaze that sweeps through parkland to the north and east, towards homes in neighborhoods like Stuckagain Heights and the upper Hillside.

Vignola and Tremaine are by no means the only people who are worried. Over the past 15 years, the city has spent millions of dollars trying to cut down on the risk of a wildfire.

Crews have built fire breaks between wildlands and developed areas, just like the breaks that successfully contained the Kenai fire before it could burn up homes. And the city has given grant money and free consultations to help residents shore up their own houses from the threat.

But experts still say that an Anchorage wildfire is a matter of when, not if. And John See, the city forester, says the city’s prevention and risk mitigation efforts have only gone so far, especially as federal grant funds have dried up in recent years.

“There’s an awful lot of people that haven’t done much, if anything, to prepare” for a fire, he said. “It probably is inevitable. And I think the outcome from that is completely within our control.”

He added: “It’s not the fire department’s job to make sure you survive. It’s your own responsibility.”

Waning prevention dollars

Anchorage has long been faced with the specter of a wildfire swallowing up local homes on the Hillside, but the efforts of local residents and government to prevent one have ebbed and flowed over the years.

A 1973 brush fire off Upper O’Malley Road grew into a blaze that torched 300 acres, though it caused minimal damage in the then-thinly populated area.

Developers have since put in scores of new houses, and fire experts say homes are at risk from the Rabbit Creek and Potter areas in the south part of the city all the way to Eagle River and Chugiak to the north.

Starting after a disastrous 37,000-acre fire in 1996 in Big Lake that burned more than 400 structures, city and state fire officials and land managers have used federal grant money to clear pockets of dead and dying trees -- “fuels,” in forestry terminology -- and to help the public protect their own homes.

Also around that time, an epidemic of beetles that killed off spruce trees raised fire awareness and got the public’s attention -- and the attention of policymakers, said Sue Rodman, who served as Anchorage’s forester for a decade beginning in 2001.

“People were very afraid,” she said. “The local politicians took our message and lobbied for earmarks, and that’s where the big money came.”

Between 2003 and 2009, Anchorage’s fire department conducted more than 1,200 home inspections and reimbursed homeowners more than $800,000 for tree work. Millions more was spent on removing dead and dying trees, and building fire breaks.

At one point, the city had two people working full-time with Rodman. But now See, the current forester, works part-time and mostly alone, with occasional help from Rodman, after grant funding began drying up following federal fiscal belt tightening and Ted Stevens’ departure from the U.S. Senate.

See conducted about 50 free home inspections in each of the last two years, down from a peak of 345 in 2005. While the city had initially intended to shut down See’s program at the end of 2013, it’s now trying to stretch grant funding and applying for new money that will keep him around for at least another couple of years, he said.

Firefighting challenges

Officials say they’ve gotten through this year’s period of most serious fire danger, which comes in the weeks before “green-up,” when buds and leaves emerge.

But the risk has not gone away. The National Weather Service earlier this week warned of potentially dangerous Hillside fire conditions Friday on the Hillside, after another dayslong stretch of warm and dry conditions.

Weather like that puts Anchorage’s fire department, and state forestry officials, on alert. They’re the ones who’d have to fight a wildfire if one started. Vignola, the Anchorage deputy chief, said the department relies on its own staff, and its five water tanker trucks, and would share resources with the military and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Hydrants on the Hillside are few and far between, meaning that the tanker trucks are critical. Crews also have access to a map database into which firefighters have pre-loaded backup water sources like streams, Vignola said.

The state’s Division of Forestry, meanwhile, keeps a helicopter staged in Palmer to cover Anchorage and the Mat-Su area, said fire management officer Norm McDonald, adding that on days with high fire risk, he holds a coordinating telephone call with the municipal fire department.

In a large wildfire, Anchorage firefighters would be focused on protecting houses and other buildings, Vignola said, while relying on the state to coordinate water-dropping helicopters or airplanes.

“As we move into a neighborhood, we see which way the fire’s going and we start triaging those homes,” Vignola said. “We start chucking the firewood; if we have time, we’ll start cutting down trees that are too close.”

Still, if a large wildfire were to break out, he and McDonald acknowledged that their crews would be stretched thin, and they stressed the importance of prior preparation by homeowners.

“There’s never going to be a fire truck for everybody’s driveway,” McDonald said.

Another concern is traffic jams. McDonald said officials have discussed how evacuations would be coordinated, but that’s still a daunting prospect given the city’s many single-lane, dead-end roads that could become difficult to navigate in thick smoke.

“There’s not many ways off the Hillside,” said Tremaine, the former South Anchorage Assembly member. “You worry about people being burned to death -- it’s a danger.”

Reducing risk

Earlier this week, See used a rope to pull himself to the top of a steep, mud-slicked embankment off a trail in East Anchorage’s Stuckagain Heights neighborhood.

At the top was a “shaded fuel break,” where highly flammable spruce trees had been thinned out and deciduous trees like birch were left to keep the sun from warming up undergrowth and drying it out.

The break, See said, is designed both to keep an encroaching fire away from nearby homes and to prevent flames from moving out of the developed area and into the deep woods.

“It’ll force the fire back on the ground,” he said.

There are similar breaks around the city -- in other areas near Far North Bicentennial Park and by the intersection of Abbott Road and Lake Otis Parkway. More are planned for Eagle River and Chugiak.

But just as crucial is the work the city promotes for homeowners on their own property -- the strategic clearing and maintenance See and others say can keep a house from going up in flames, with city matching grant funding covering part of the bill.

Less than a mile from the Stuckagain Heights fire break is a sterling example: the home of 61-year-old Loran Baxter, a federal retiree.

On a tour Monday with See, Baxter raved about his neighborhood’s perks, like access to skiing and hiking. But he also acknowledged the dangers of living in such a densely forested area.

That danger was hammered home to Baxter and his wife during a presentation See gave to the local community council.

After an assessment, they cut limbs off trees, got rid of their wooden roofing and replaced a wooden walkway leading to the home that See likened to a fuse.

Now, in the event a wildfire approaches, Baxter said he and his wife are confident enough in their safety that they won’t evacuate.

“We’ll seal up the vents, get the hoses ready, and hunker down,” he said.

‘The forest grows’

One open question is what will happen to Anchorage’s fire mitigation program over the next few years if its funding dries up.

See said the city is in line for more federal grant money, though not at the same level it saw over the past 15 years.

And maintaining the work done during that period requires additional investment. At the Stuckagain Heights fire break, completed in 2012, new spruce saplings are already starting to push their way back up towards the slower-burning deciduous trees that were left in place.

“The forest grows,” said Rodman, the former city forester. “There’s just not enough manpower to take a look at and coordinate the maintenance needs.”

That problem is not yet urgent, Rodman said, though she added that ultimately, an annual city investment of as little as $200,000 could support an adequate mitigation program.

Vignola, the deputy fire chief, stressed that federal funding had not dried up completely, and added that the city has not yet gotten to the point at which its fire breaks require substantial work.

“It’s just utilizing the taxpayers’ money in the most efficient, effective way possible,” he said. “I’m always going to be concerned that there’s not enough. If it were me, I’d have a fire station on every street corner.”

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.