Two birds with one stone - a 'road map' to community resilience

Blog Post created by ryan.quinn Employee on Oct 22, 2012

The last leg of our 10-day Firewise Alaska journey Hylton Haynes and I were driving on the well known Alaska Canada Highway better known as the Alcan Highway towards the towns of Tok and Delta Junction.  Prior to commencing on our trip the Wasilla locals warned us about the possibility of encountering moose on this stretch. Being visitors we were of course less worried about the hazard and more keen to see a moose.  Fortunately near the end of our 235 mile drive from Wasilla to Tok we were privileged enough to  see one big robust male moose crossing the highway. The moment was too brief for a photo, but memorable nonetheless. 

Image 1: Scenic view of a glacier located in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park & Preserve on the east side of the AK-1 Highway midway between Tok and Wasilla.

Visiting Firewise sparkplugs in the towns of Tok and Delta Junction we were amazed by the amount of spruce trees and their size.  These trees have narrow canopies, somewhat short in height (less than 50' tall) with a trunk not much larger than my hand and dominate the landscape with a reported density of 5,000 to 10,000 trees per acre.  Let's just say it give new meaning to the saying like 'hair on a dog's back'. 

Image 2: [A] Locator map - Tok, AK; [B] Self giving a Firewise presentation to community leaders in Tok; [C] Hylton standing on the Alcan Highway heading northwest towards Delta Junction just outside of Tok.  Notice the dense black and white spruce forests to the left and right of the highway; [D] Halfway to Tok from Wasilla

The local officials say when there is a wildfire, which range into the hundreds of thousands of acres per fire, the fire is so intense it causes total tree stand replacement, and takes generations for the spruce to return to their original climax forest status.  The good that comes from these fires is the type of tree that returns after the fire, which is a more fire resistive species such as birch and aspen.  The village of Tanacross just outside of Tok, not only has had recent wildfires but also a severe windstorm which has put much of the timber to the ground.

Image 3: Native Alaskan town of Tanacross, 12 miles northwest of Tok. [A] Severe windstorm damage that in turn poses a huge wildfire hazard after the event; [B] A view on one of the streets in Tanacross, the mountain range backdrop is simply stunning; [C] A windstorm damaged forest located to the west of the town that experienced a wildfire recently, fortunately no structures were lost; [D] Community clean-up of the windstorm event, fortunately the residual material can be used for home heating

This is an area of the countryside where the town population is about 1,000 people and there is no local tax and it gets so cold in the winter that City Hall closes when it gets to below minus 40 degree mercury mark!  The majority feel if the town services need something the residents will do their best to make sure it happens.  Whether it be a new fire tuck, snow to be plowed or a road to be resurfaced the residents accomplish this largely through donations.  So you can see that many of these homeowners depend on each other to endure this rugged country.  Wildfires, floods and winter storms seem to be the challenges these towns face every year.

The town of Tok has an independent power system which uses petroleum to fuel the generators at a high cost each year to the local residents.  Their goal is to do something similar to what the town of Delta Junction accomplished a few years back, which was to use the natural and abundant spruce wood biomass to fuel the town generator power grid.  Officials from Tok believe once they complete this project it could cut their energy cost in half.

“Two Birds with One Stone”, they said, by creating fuel breaks in the forest and removing trees around homes and access roads reduces the threat of wildfire to the residents, enhances firefighter safety and supplies fuel for the generator and fire places.  Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP) and Firewise Communities/USA® are also a hot topic in Tok and Delta Junction.  Neither town has a recognized Firewise Community yet, but the planning has begun.  Many residents use Firewise principals by creating defensible space on their one, two, five or 10 acre lot.  Residents either burn their debris on site or take advantage of one of the Alaska Division of Forestry debris collection sites. But for many rural Alaskan’s, developing a Firewise Community on such large lots is more challenging than their suburban counterparts located in the lower 48.  Finding the “carrot” the “catalyst” to engage the concept to become a nationally recognized Firewise Community/USA® site for these 'rural' or as some would say “wilderness” homeowners is the key.  The Division of Forestry officials who are strong advocates for Firewise principles want to entertain more wildfire prevention and mitigation training within their community with home assessments to follow.  The hope is  that with some additioanl professional training like the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ) workshop these rural communites will become more accepting of their wildfire risk mitigation responsibilities.   

Mike Tsvenge, the Delta Junction City Manager said he wants to start small, locate one of his small higher density neighborhoods to use as a model Firewise Community.  We asked, so what will be your carrot to get these people involved? He thought about that for a minute and then said, “You know our residents like good roads, so maybe the neighborhood reward will be a newly resurfaced road when they become recognized as a Firewise Community.” 

Image 4: [A] Alaska Division of Forestry managed burn pit located in Delta Junction.  A very effective tool not only for fuel mitigation, but also brush disposal because the disposal of brush is done in a controlled environment by fire boss experts versus homeowners trying to do it in their backyards; [B] Fire break on the outskirts of town; [C] Hylton, self and Mike Tvenge meeting to discuss Firewise Communities/USA opportunities in the city of Delta Junction

Hylton and I were excited about the amount of Firewise spirit and enthusiasm in these remote communities, and hope when we do return, we will find that these neighborhoods will have achieved not only defensible space but also have several recognized Firewise Communities/USA.  Out of all of our travels through Alaska, we feel the that both Tok and Delta Junction present the greatest opportunity for future Firewise Community/USA® sites.  The wildfire risk, remoteness, limited resources and minimal governance warrants the community based volunteer solution that the Firewise program affords them.  These community members already depend on each other and by participating in the Firewise Communities/USA® program they will reinforce relationships and collectively reduce their overall wildfire risk profile. 

A special thanks goes out to the the Alaska Division of Forestry representatives - Peter Talus (Tok Acting Fire Management Officer), Jeff Hermanns (Tok Area Forester) and Al Edgren (Delta Area Forester) who made our visit to this part of the Alaska a most enjoyable and interesting experience.