Days of rain have dampened the big wildfires that exploded across Southcentral and Interior Alaska this summer, but burned areas are still smoldering, state forestry officials said Friday.
Meanwhile the state is tallying the costs.
As of September 18, expenditures of $168.9 million have been made by the state fighting wildfires, according to data released by the state Division of Forestry. This includes state expenses incurred fighting fires on federal lands such as the Swan Lake Fire, which is on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Those costs will be reimbursed by the federal government as well as a portion of the state’s costs in dealing with fires on state and other lands.
Of the $168.9 million total so far about $66.96 million spent on federal lands will be reimbursed and some of the remaining $108.14 million will also be covered the federal government. A yet-to-be determined portion of that will have to the paid from the state general fund, which may require a supplemental appropriation – perhaps a large one – by the Legislature next spring.
Three large fires on non-federal lands, Shovel Creek near Fairbanks and the McKinley and Deshka Landing fires near Willow, are eligible for federal fire management assistance grants, or FMAG reimbursements, that are administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Christ Maisch, director of the forestry division. Up to 75 percent of the $47.1 million spent by the state on those three fires are eligible for federal reimbursement, he said.
“This will eventually reimburse the state general fund costs for FY20 (the current state budget year) but the process is long one and it typically takes two years due to FEMA audit requirements,” Maisch said.
“Reimbursements are made in phases as costs are approved. The good news is that will be a significant help in pulling the general fund cost down for the state,” he said.
The state figures do not include funds expended by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in fighting fires on certain BLM-managed lands mostly in remote Interior Alaska, but in remote areas fires are generally left to burn themselves out with firefighters mobilized only when communities or infrastructure are threatened.
The rain helps, but there are still “hot” spots, Maisch said. “The depth of burning and extremely dry fuels this year are resulting in deeper-than-normal burning and smoldering. The winter will put the end to most of it but we are expecting ‘holdovers’ next spring.
“Past big years have typically seen several to more than a dozen. They tend to crop back up in the spring after snowmelt and before green-up, usually on a dry and windy (spring) day. Generally we will take suppression action on those that occur. This will be a discussion point for our fall after-action reviews that will start in October,” he said.
Maisch said the Division of Forestry had to bring thousands of firefighters from other states this summer to deal with Alaska’s fires. At the peak of firefighting over 3,000 were at work combating fires in state-managed areas, most of them from Lower 48 forest fire crews, he said. Over 8,000 firefighters were brought north through the summer, although most were here for short periods.
Alaska firefighters were also engaged, including crews from rural villages in Interior Alaska who have traditionally supplied firefighters. Maisch said Alaska was lucky that this is not a major wildfire year in the Lower 48, and that firefighters from other states were available.
For several reasons the number of firefighters available from rural villages has declined in recent years. One is that federal rules now require physical examinations for firefighters before they go to work, and this can be complicated to do in a remote community, Maisch said.
Secondly, the demographics in rural Alaska are changing. There are more older people, , he said. Many adult young men have left rural villages to find jobs and live in larger communities. Middle-aged or younger adults still in villages typically have family responsibilities and jobs.
Years ago there were larger numbers of able young people available at short notice in villages and even trained crews organized by the village. The BLM, or other agency, could send out a plane out to bring in a crew mostly trained and ready to go. That has been difficult to do in recent years.
If Alaska were to have another big summer fire season that coincided with a major Lower 48 wildlife year Alaskan agencies would be very hard pressed.