Turning tragedy into action

Blog Post created by hyltonhaynes Employee on Oct 19, 2012

On Saturday October 8th, Gary Marshall and I visited the town of Big Lake located in the Mat-Su Borough in south central Alaska.  Our first stop was the Big Lake Volunteer Fire Department.  During the course of our visit we met up with Bea Adler (Emergency Management Program Manager), Michieal Abe and Michelle Torres (Mitigation Specialists) for the Mat-Su Borough; Tom Grieling (Alaska Division of Forestry Prevention Officer) and Cathi Kramer (Horseshoe Lake Firewise Communities/USA® President).  During the course of the visit we looked at wildland fire risk maps and learned about the 1996 Miller’s Reach fire that destroyed more than 400 homes including Cathi’s.  Since the tragic event, the Horseshoe Lake community has taken extraordinary actions to reduce their wildland fire risk
exposure.  Interestingly enough it was the 10 year anniversary of this tragic event in 2006 that the Horseshoe Lake neighborhood became a recognized Firewise Communities/USA® site.

Image 1: The Horseshoe Lake Firewise team standing next to the donated Fire Danger sign and and 'Firewsie garden wall'.

One of the first things the neigbor hood addressed after the fire was to install a second ingress/egress road into the neighborhood.  This important task was critical in improving the evacuation capability of the community.  For more on wildfire evacuation readiness please check out the Ready, Set, Go! website.  Having only one way in and out during the 1996 Miller's Reach event caused some severe emergency response and evacuation issues.  The installation of this second access road has significantly reduced Horseshoe Lake's vulnerability in the event of wildfire event.

Image 2:  Cathi discussing the importance of the second access road and how this has reduced their vulnerability in the event of a wildfire. 

Michieal went on to describe the Mat-Su Borough Firewise program that includes free home risk assessments and a spruce tree removal cost-share program.  The cost-share program has a budgetary cap and financial resources are appropriated on a first come first serve basis. This program provides eligible homeowner’s up to $900 for tree removal services provided by local qualified contractors.  Only high risk beetle killed white spruce and all black spruce qualify for program. The more fire resistant hardwood species like birch, cottonwood, willow and alder do not qualify.  The program is supported by a grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Some of the other neat things this Firewise community has done to prepare for a wildfire event is establish several fire huts (equipment caches) at strategic locations within the community.  Some of the homes within the community are only accessible by water and do not have any road access, because of this the fire hut resource provides additional water resource capacity in the event of a wildfire or house fire and is a great solution when accessibility is of concern.  One of the interesting equipment pieces in this cache is an ice auger.  This tool allows for ready access to the lakes water supply when it is frozen over - an important concern when living in Alaska. 

Another novel fundraising approach that was employed in the summer 2009 was the ‘garden wall project’.  The idea started with the donation of a “Fire Danger Today” sign from the Alaska Division of Forestry.  Several community members got together to plan the installation and came up with the idea of a terraced demonstration garden.  The project was completed over several weekends.  In and effort to fund the project brick tiles were sold to be placed on the wall.  Originally 25 tiles were sold ($50 a tile) with room for additional tiles which now total more than 50 tiles.  This fundraising initiative helped fund the fire hut and several chipping day projects. 

 Image 3: (A) Volunteer tools; (B) Risk assessment maps; (C) Fire huts; (D) Fuel mitigation/defensible space project. Notice only the hardwoods remain, most of the spruce has been removed.

The ‘garden wall project’ has proven to be a focal point within the community, with Cathi using this central location to distribute Firewise activities matching funds recording sheets.  Cathi has found these recording sheets most helpful for program administration within her neighborhood.  Visit volunteer tools to upload some of these useful tracking forms.

Image 4: (A) Michiael's Mat Su Burough Emergency Service's wildland fire mitigation truck; (B) Firewise lucheon at Cathi's house; (C) Fire Adapted Communities presentation (self) to Mat-Su Burough community memebrs; (D) Cathi's 2009 Firewise leadership award; (E) Horseshoe Lake Firewise 2006 recognition plaque

The Horseshoe Lake Firewise neighborhood has done an outstanding job in meeting their immediate wildfire challenge.  Since 2006, this group effort between state, local and community members has resulted in an exemplary example of our Firewise Communities/USA recognition program.  All the folks involved need to be commended for their efforts.