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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

Alaska Fire Management: From Hazard Fuel to Biofuel

Region 0, April 30, 2013
A stand of trees adjacent to the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge headquarters after thinning.
A stand of trees adjacent to the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge headquarters after thinning. - Photo Credit: n/a
Trees removed during thinning are stacked for transport to the Tok School boiler.
Trees removed during thinning are stacked for transport to the Tok School boiler. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Maureen Clark
Public Affairs Specialist

 

For the residents of Tok, in Alaska’s Eastern Interior, the threat of wildfire is taken very seriously.
The community of 1,300 is nestled within a thick spruce forest and longtime residents have vivid memories of a wildfire 23 years ago that nearly destroyed the town. The lightning-caused Tok Fire of 1990 jumped two rivers as well as the Alaska Highway, forcing the evacuation of the town. Only a last-minute shift in the wind diverted the fire just before it reached a building. The fire burned for much of the summer, charring 100,000 acres.

Tok’s fire history and its proximity to Federal lands have made it a prime candidate to participate in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program. The program is a collaborative effort to reduce the threat of wildfire to communities within and adjacent to national wildlife refuges.

The 682,600-acre Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge has its headquarters in Tok. In addition, the nearby communities of Port Alcan, Northway and Tetlin have also participated in the program, with a total of nearly 900 acres treated since 2002. In fire management, a hazard fuel is vegetation that ignites easily and burns rapidly, enabling a fire to grow quickly. Hazardous Fuels Reduction projects modify or break up vegetation to lessen the threat of fire to the public and firefighters and damage to property.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the Alaska Division of Forestry on projects in and around the Tetlin Refuge, including the creation of fuel breaks, thinning of heavily forested areas and the clearing of areas around buildings that could serve as evacuation shelters. In addition, the project has helped 150 homeowners create defensible space around their homes.
“Another great aspect of this is that we’re actually making a safer situation for our firefighters,” said Jeff Hermanns, Area Forester with the Alaska Division of Forestry. “We’ve created some really good safety zones for our wildland firefighters.”


But the removal of hazard fuels is only part of the story for the community of Tok. Working with the local school district, the Alaska Division of Forestry has turned hazard fuel into biofuel. The trees cut down in an effort to make the community safer are then ground up and burned in a high efficiency boiler used to heat the Tok School. By burning wood instead of expensive diesel fuel, the school district will save approximately $100,000 a year.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service funding has been huge,” said Hermanns. “The work we did with hazard fuel reduction was instrumental in getting the biomass project started. We’ve proved that we’re using good science and that it’s sustainable.”

Contact Info: Maureen Clark, (907) 786-3469, Maureen_Clark@fws.gov