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Alaska Fire Management: Protecting an Alaska Community from Wildfire
Alaska Region, June 30, 2012
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Workers clear trees to create a fuel break in the Interior Alaska village of Ruby.
Workers clear trees to create a fuel break in the Interior Alaska village of Ruby. - Photo Credit: Maureen Clark
The village of Ruby overlooks the Yukon River.
The village of Ruby overlooks the Yukon River. - Photo Credit: Maureen Clark
Ruby Tribal Administrator Pat Sweetsir and Fish and Wildlife Fire Management Officer Ben Pratt.
Ruby Tribal Administrator Pat Sweetsir and Fish and Wildlife Fire Management Officer Ben Pratt. - Photo Credit: Maureen Clark

On a wooded ridge above the Yukon River village of Ruby, a crew is felling alders and birch trees. The whirring of the chainsaws is interrupted by the cracking of trees as they crash to the ground. Though the afternoon is warm and mosquitos pester them, the workers make steady progress. They move through the woods, cutting trees and piling brush as they clear the last stretch of a firebreak to protect the village from the possibility of wildfires.

 

Before long, the sky darkens and a thunderstorm rolls across the valley, underscoring the importance of the crew’s efforts. During summer, lightning strikes are common in Interior Alaska’s boreal forest.

Ruby is adjacent to the 2-million-acre Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge, where the landscape has been shaped over thousands of years by lightning-caused fires that have left a mosaic of black and white spruce, birch, alder, willow, shrubs, and grasses. Natural fire is essential to maintaining the health of the ecosystem and the diversity of wildlife in the refuge.

The 180 residents of Ruby want to live safely within this fire-prone landscape. For help in protecting the village, the Ruby Tribal Council turned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program four years ago. In fire management circles, a hazardous fuel is vegetation that ignites easily and burns rapidly, enabling a fire to grow quickly. The program provides technical assistance and funding to reduce the impact of wildland fire on communities within and near refuges.

Fish and Wildlife fire managers helped the tribe develop a fire mitigation plan that could be implemented in stages over several summers. The funding enabled the tribe to purchase tools and safety equipment and to hire and train village residents to remove and prune trees and cut brush.

For Kenton Moos, manager of the Koyukuk and Nowitna National Wildlife Refuges, working with the community of Ruby has provided an opportunity to be a good neighbor

“When it comes to fire, our first priority is protecting life and then property,” Moos said. “The hazardous fuels reduction funds help us do that. The program also provides some much-needed income in a community where jobs are scarce.”

The project has spurred interest among village residents in pursuing work as wildland firefighters, said Ruby Tribal Administrator Pat Sweetsir. “With the training people have received, it’s really revived our local firefighting crew.”

On a summer afternoon, during a walk around the village with Fish and Wildlife Fire Management Officer Ben Pratt, it’s easy to see the work that’s been done. Where once a thick black spruce forest came up to the edge of the road that rings the village, some trees have been removed and the lower limbs have been pruned from those that remain. That thinning reduces the possibility of a fire moving into the canopy of the trees, where it can spread more quickly.

Brush is piled neatly at intervals, waiting to be burned in the fall when the danger of wildfire has passed. Trees have been cut down to create a buffer around the village dump and thinned around the cemetery. The effort has reduced hazardous fuels on nearly 54 acres of land around the village over the past four summers.

“If a fire crew had to come in to protect the town from wildfire they would be impressed and very grateful for the work that’s been done. This would make their job a whole lot easier,” Pratt said.

For residents, the work has brought a measure of comfort.

“I think they’re really happy knowing they’re safer from fire,” said Tribal Administrator Pat Sweetsir. “And the crew is glad to be doing work that helps the community.”


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



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