Commentary: Help Alaska prevent wildfires this summer

By Libby Roderick
For The Cordova Times

Wildfire prevention and water conservation are among the last topics I ever thought I’d write about. Over decades of living in Anchorage, I’ve never needed to think about wildfire prevention, other than ensuring my firewood wasn’t leaning against my house. And we’ve had so much snow and so many glaciers that conserving water was the last thing on my mind. I’m only writing about them now because I love this city and state and want it to survive and thrive.  And I’m afraid.

Last summer scared the living daylights out of me.  I’ve never before seen a wildfire inside the city limits here.  Never had to stay inside to avoid smoke.  Never seen so many fires raging so close to Anchorage. Never had to consider evacuating because a wildfire passed close to my house.

If you live in Anchorage, you know how distressing those things were.  If you live elsewhere, chances are, fires may have hit you even harder. You also know that last summer was incredibly hard on Alaska’s trees.  Many birch trees were profoundly stressed by our (first ever) drought.  In fall, their leaves didn’t turn bright yellow; instead they just browned and wilted.  And the drought-supported beetle infestation killed many spruce trees. Along Anchorage’s bike trails, maybe one out of ten now stands dead. 

People are rightly grieving these generous companions that give us everything from shade to oxygen to homes for birds.  But we also need to realize the danger we’re in.  For the first time, Anchorage is a sitting duck for wildfire. We need to act quickly to prevent disaster.  One cigarette or lightning strike could change our world forever. We need to catch up to the new realities around us, and the terrifying warning signs provided by equally unprepared places like Australia.

I’m speaking primarily about Anchorage because I have firsthand experience there to draw on.  But, as we all know, accelerating wildfire threats affect all Alaskans, and virtually every region of the state.

In a typical Alaskan summer, some 500,000 acres go up in flames. 2019 saw roughly 2.5 million acres burn statewide, and thousands of Outside firefighters joining local crews to try and control the damage. Last year’s wildfires alone cost over $300 million. The Swan Lake Fire between Cooper Landing and Sterling went underground, and is expected to resurge next summer, when high temperatures and dry vegetation will allow its buried heat to rage anew.  We need to revisit the strategy for addressing that fire and others around the state and make necessary changes.

Meanwhile, homeowners, municipalities and the state need to prioritize cutting down dead trees and planting new ones.  Residents need to move flammable material at least 30 feet away from homes and sheds. The Anchorage municipality needs to hire an urban forester and create a fire response plan (similar to its earthquake preparedness plans) and make sure all residents know what it involves. Community Councils here are working with the Fire Department’s wildfire mitigation section to promote fire prevention practices, including addressing road issues to ensure that people can escape from fires.  Other communities need to take similar actions. Given the budget situation, citizens may need to push elected leaders to give us adequate resources to prepare for these threats. In addition, check out these helpful steps to prevent or minimize fire damage.

We also need to practice smart watering procedures.  Don’t water trees and lawns in the middle of the day; more than half the water evaporates.  Turn off the faucet rather than letting it run.  Use water for multiple purposes (e.g., to wash dishes and water indoor plants). In Anchorage, we need to think about our aquifer, the health and longevity of Eklutna Glacier (the city’s water supply), rain catchment systems, and other ways to support our trees, wildlife and ecosystems.  Communities around the state need to take similar action to protect their own water supplies. Let’s act now to protect our homes, wildlife, and community so we are spared Australia’s fate.

Libby Roderick, an internationally recognized singer/songwriter, is the director of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative and associate director of the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence at the University of Alaska Anchorage.