EDITORIAL: Sooner or later, Anchorage’s wildfire luck will run out

When it comes to summer wildfire danger, Anchorage is living on borrowed time. This has been true for decades, but the near-miss of the McHugh Fire in 2016 brought a new spotlight to the risks local neighborhoods face during the summer fire season. This is especially true for the Hillside, where many residents only have one road to get out if worst comes to worst. But those of us near sea level can’t rest easy, either — the same greenbelts that contribute immensely to the quality of life in the city are also potential vectors for uncontrolled fires that could sweep through vast swaths of the city given the wrong conditions.

The susceptibility of Hillside neighborhoods to fire danger has long been a discussion point in the community — it came up during the Anchorage Assembly’s recent discussion over zoning reform, for instance — but surprisingly little has been done to address the obvious problems. Many areas that border Chugach State Park have limited access, steep road grades, poor facilities for fire equipment to stage, and little in the way of safe escape routes if the wind is blowing the wrong direction.

Homeowners can and should do what they can to make their properties defensible against runaway fires, of course. This includes precautions like keeping flammable material like firewood and propane tanks a safe distance from the house, reducing burnable brush and undergrowth in a substantial radius around structures, keeping hoses and other firefighting tools readily accessible, and making a family emergency action plan — in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to panic and lose valuable time figuring out what to do.

But there’s also collective action that entities such as community councils can spearhead. To make sure that fire crews don’t have to haul full tanker trucks up steep roads, water could be stored at elevation in tanks and firefighters could draw from those reservoirs as needed; at least one hilly neighborhood in Interior Alaska has already adopted this strategy to aid its local volunteer fire department. And councils could also take point on advocating for the municipality to develop a comprehensive plan for fighting wildfires and evacuating residents on the Hillside. In the long term, backup routes to Hillside neighborhoods are needed, though in many places the buildup of subdivisions has left little in the way of obvious possibilities for alternate access. But ultimately, public safety dictates that we solve that problem, whether by right-of-way acquisition or other means. Having whole neighborhoods where residents could be unable to escape a swift-moving natural disaster is an untenable state of affairs.

In the city proper, the abundance of forested areas threading between neighborhoods also presents fire risks for residents; in addition to creating and maintaining defensible space on our own properties, we should be watchful when walking, running or biking on trails for signs of fire. Reporting a potential fire to authorities as quickly as possible is a great service; minutes can be the difference between a fire being easily brought under control and it getting away before fire crews arrive on scene.

The best time to act on mitigating fire risk in Anchorage was decades ago; the second-best time is now. We should remember the close calls of years past, as well as the fires currently burning elsewhere in the state, and make sure our own neighborhoods aren’t the next cautionary tale.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.