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As Kenai Peninsula dries out, likelihood for fires increases

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As Kenai Peninsula dries out, likelihood for fires increases

was written by Renee Gross, KBBI – Homer , 2019-08-13 20:15:18

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A wetland near Diamond Creek Trail in Homer. (Photo by Renee Gross, KBBI – Homer)

The Kenai Peninsula is drying out and this summer, fires have sprouted up in some unusual places. Scientists warn about this trend: meaning bigger fires and more of them.

Ed Berg is digging a roughly foot-wide-hole in a wetland off Diamond Creek Trail in Homer. He’s a retired ecologist from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

“So what I’m seeing in the plug are all these little woody roots that are from the crowberry and the dwarf birch drawers, and blueberry,” Berg said.

These roots are an indication of a profound change. For thousands of years, peninsula wetlands didn’t see any woody shrubs like these. 

“Within the last 50 years or so, the woody plants have come in gangbusters and starting even earlier with some of the trees like black spruce, which are very moisture tolerant, especially since the 1970s, we’ve seen these shrubs come in,” Berg said.

He said these plants are sprouting up because of warmer temperatures and less precipitation. And as a whole, wetlands across the peninsula are just less wet. 

Now some places were you used to need rubber boots in the wetlands, you can get by with just tennis shoes. That might be a nice change for hiking. But not so for stopping fires, which wetlands usually do.

“The fire just would burn up to the edge and wouldn’t normally burn across it,” Berg said. “Now these firebreaks are being turned into what you might call fire bridges.”

But wetlands aren’t the only landscapes changing. Essentially all the water stored in the soil has declined by roughly 60 percent on the Kenai Peninsula. Drying out not just wetlands, but grasslands too.

“Well, what’s changing now with the climates we’re getting is that spring window is getting a little bit longer, where are you have this exposure of dried grass on top of the ground there, so that’s getting longer,” said Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Supervisory Biologist John Morton.

So here on the peninsula, which is used to seeing summer forest fires, spring grassland fires are likely to become more common. 

“This year, of course, we had two fires up in Caribou Hills that started in grassland and what was so unusual about them is that these are the first fires that I’m aware of where they were actually caused by lightning in early June in a grassland situation on the Kenai,” Berg said.

That brings us to another big shift: warmer weather is bringing early summer and late spring storms… with lightning. And lightning plus dry grass is a perfect recipe for fires. 

Scott Rupp is the deputy director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He said the number of lightning strikes happening in Alaska is unprecedented. Most strikes aren’t starting fires. But the ones that do are often hard to put out. 

“We tend to be really good at putting out those fires that we start partly because we tend to start them in populated areas, and we have resources available to very quickly jump on those” Rupp said. “Where as lightning is occurring all over the landscape and many times in very remote areas.”

Back at Diamond Creek Trail, Ed Berg said fire safety is something he wants residents here to think about. Even if they live by a wetland. 

“They may think they’re protected if they have muskeg growing on all sides of their house” Berg said. “But in the next 20 years, that muskeg may turn into a spruce woodland and they won’t be as protected.”

He said residents should be prepared for the change.  

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traveling to Alaska

Traveling To Alaska, the 49th State

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Locally encouraged destinations for anyone traveling to Alaska includes

Chugach National Forest. Only one third as big as Tongass National Forest, in Southeast Alaska, Chugach is still the second-largest national forest in the nation and an impressive combination of forests, rivers, lakes, mountains and glaciers. Approximately the size of New Hampshire, Chugach incorporates a geographic variety that is truly unique amongst national forests. The 5,940,000-acre forest is dispersed across three different landscapes, extending from the Kenai Peninsula east across Prince William Sound to encompass the Gulf Coast encircling the Copper River Delta, then east from there as far as the Bering Glacier. Wildlife is abundant especially for all those who try to hike far from the roadways and roads. Black and brown bear occupy most of the forest, foraging on open tundra slopes and in intertidal zones. At the end of summer months, bears may very well be observed feeding upon spawned-out salmon along streams and rivers. Record-size moose live in the Kenai Peninsula and the Copper River Delta. Dall sheep can be seen on Kenai Peninsula mountainsides, mountain goats are found on steep hillsides along Prince William Sound, the Copper River Delta and from time to time above Portage Valley. Boaters and kayakers on Prince William Sound may see Dall porpoises, harbor seals, sea otters, sea lions, Orcas and humpback whales. More than 214 species of resident and migratory birds inhabit Chugach National Forest. Seabirds, including blacklegged kittiwakes, nest in sea cliff colonies by the thousands. Ptarmigan scurry about alpine tundra, bald eagles perch on shoreline snags and Steller’s jays forage in the underbrush. The Copper River Delta protects one of the largest concentrations of nesting trumpeter swans in North America in addition to the total population of dusky Canada geese. Nesting waterfowl are joined in springtime and autumn by many of migrating shorebirds. Chugach provides a variety of sportfishing options; fishermen can cast for rainbow, lake and cutthroat trout and also Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling and all five species of Pacific salmon. Many of the fisheries are simple to reach; roadside lakes and rivers abound providing anglers a chance to fish without needing a boat. Chugach’s most noted fishery is the red salmon run of the Russian River where anglers are often standing elbow-to-elbow alongside the river bank in July and July. Chugach is one of the few places left in the world where glaciers spill out of the mountains and into the seas. When combined with the Bagley Icefield from where it originates, Bering Glacier is actually larger than Switzerland. Columbia Glacier is one of the largest tidewater glaciers in the world while Portage Glacier and its Begich-Boggs Visitor Center is actually one of the most widely used places to visit for tourists within Alaska.

a vacation in Chugach National Forest in Alaska

A Trip To Chugach National Forest in Alaska, the 49th State