Covid-19 worries Alaska wildfire managers; burn permits suspended at end of month

Apr 8, 2020

Credit Alaska Division of Forestry

The Alaska Division of Forestry will suspend all burn permits – both small- and large-scale – effective at midnight on April 30.
    The use of burn barrels, the burning of debris piles, and any other outdoor burning activity authorized under previously issued permits will be prohibited on all state, private and municipal lands throughout Alaska as of May 1, in anticipation of the impacts of COVID-19 on Alaska’s wildland firefighting resources this summer.
    Tim Mowrey, the State Division of Forestry spokesman in Fairbanks, said illness, travel restrictions and the safety of crews once they’re here, are all on the mind of fire managers.
    “It may be very difficult to get resources from the Lower 48 this year. You know, last year we brought up more than 5,000 people. And that's that's not going to be reasonable this year given the current travel restrictions and quarantine requirements and so we're wrestling with a lot of things right now there's a lot of dialogue going on within the agency, both from the state and federal perspectives,” he said. “You know how we're going to take care of our firefighters in a fire camp, how we're going to sanitize engines and helicopters, they're, you know, being used by firefighters every day.”
    Mowrey reminds us that the state now starts fire seasons in Alaska on April 1st.
    “Fire season officially started on April 1. I know that Mother Nature has been on our side so far. It does not look like it's gonna be an early start to the season as it has been in the last several years. But yeah, like I said we're just trying to come to grips with this and and figure out, you know, response plans both on a national level, local level, state level, because it impacts fire departments who were a big key for us and helping fight fires and respond to fires and just has a huge ripple effect. You know, when you start to think about it, you know, how do you feed firefighters in that camp? How do you, if somebody is infected in a fire camp, how do you deal with that? And like I said, this is all stuff that we're still wrestling with right now and trying to get nailed down before we get into the to the heart of fire season.”
    Mowrey said it’s not likely that a lot of people have given wildland fire much thought over the last couple of months due to the coronavirus outbreak, but he says they need to, as this season could be difficult if it’s human-caused fires aren’t mitigated early.
    “We would just ask for the public support on this. We know it's an inconvenience or hardship in some instances, but there's a lot of hardships that are being felt by a lot of people right now,” he said. “And in the big scheme of things I don't think not being able to burn a brush pile is as important as some of this other stuff people are dealing with.”
    Mowrey says the state is being aggressively proactive for a reason.
     “Wildland firefighting is not conducive to social distancing and sanitizing your hands every hour or washing your hands every hour, it's just a different kind of environment. So we're still really trying to figure a lot of this stuff out and develop best practices that will keep both our firefighters and the public safe,” Mowrey said. “But we're trying to do everything we can to reduce the number of human-caused fires in Alaska, and that's why we're taking this pretty aggressive step.”
    Any person or business found to be violating the burn permit suspension order may be issued a citation to pay a fine or appear in court. The statewide burn permit suspension will not include cooking, warming or signaling fires that are less than three feet in diameter with flame lengths no more than two feet high. It also will not include commercially manufactured outdoor cooking and heating devices with built-in open flame safety devices.
    Until the May 1 suspension takes effect, small- and large-scale burning on state, municipal or private lands continues to require permits from the state, or from local governments whose burn permitting programs meet or exceed state standards. The Division of Forestry will re-evaluate the burn suspension on a regular basis to determine if and when it is safe to rescind it.
    Those burning before May 1 should carefully read and closely follow the requirements of their permits. They should also continually monitor and constrain any burn piles, and when finished burning, ensure fires are completely extinguished and cold to the touch so they will not holdover, rekindle and escape as conditions grow warmer and drier.