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Army backtracks on cause of Stuart Creek wildfire but sets up damage claims system

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Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 6:31 pm | Updated: 4:36 pm, Tue Jul 23, 2013.

FAIRBANKS—The Army is backing away from statements made three days ago by Fort Wainwright Garrison Commander Col. Ron Johnson that the base’s training exercises sparked the 82,000-acre Stuart Creek 2 Fire.

A spokesman for U.S. Army Alaska said Tuesday the wildfire that prompted an evacuation in Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley on Chena Hot Springs Road still is under investigation and can’t definitively be linked to the artillery exercises. However, the Army later in the afternoon Tuesday began accepting damage claims from people who believe they have been affected by the Army’s “possible wrongdoing.”

“Anyone who believes they have suffered loss as a result of the Army’s possible wrongdoing may submit a claim to the U.S. Army legal office,” the afternoon news release said.

Maj. Alan Brown, spokesman for Army Alaska, said an official investigation into the cause of the fire will occur once the blaze has been extinguished.

The Army is working with other agencies to determine the exact cause of the fire. If it is determined that the Army was negligent, then there is a process in place to submit claims.  

“Are there some early indications that it is related to training at Yukon Training area? Yes. But we can’t make an official determination of what happened and how it happened until we’ve gathered and reviewed all the facts,” he said. “Our focus is still on putting the fire out and ensuring the safety of the community. Once the fire is out, we will conduct a thorough review and consider every possible cause.”

Johnson, at a Saturday evening community meeting at the Pleasant Valley Community Center, said the base had taken some efforts to reduce fire risk but that its personnel had started the fire. “In this case, it took some mitigation measures. They allowed the training to occur. It was artillery training; it did start a fire,” he said at the meeting.

The Stuart Creek 2 Fire began June 19 in the Yukon Training Area while one of the Army’s field artillery units was conducting a training exercise from June 12 to June 19.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service had warned against the exercises because of prolonged hot, dry weather. The Army consults with the BLM during periods of high fire risk to determine if it can issue a waiver to the unit to conduct the exercise. The BLM had sent a recommendation that the base not hold its training exercises during the hot weather.

“The situation was this: Throughout the state, we had hot temps and dry fuels and associated winds and all of those things are ingredients for easy fire starts,” said Mel Slater, spokesman for the BLM’s fire service in Alaska. “That’s why we gave the recommendation to not grant the waiver.”

The decision ultimately was up to U.S. Army Alaska — known as USARAK — command at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Brown said after some determination of risk factors, they decided to go ahead with the exercises.

“In this case, the units involved factored a variety of external  risk factors into their assessment,” he said. “They took specific measures in order to reduce the risk of fire or other hazards. Permission to continue training goes through several approval steps that take into account the types of ammunition being fired, the specific range and other environmental factors. The request is ultimately approved at USARAK headquarters at JBER.”

The specific measures employed in the exercises included “modifying the types of rounds fired, the direction and distance of the rounds and the specific impact area,” Brown said.

Brown said the military is providing both personnel and equipment to the air and ground efforts to fight the blaze. More than 700 people from multiple agencies are assigned to the fire.

The interagency team responsible for managing the response to the fire said the effort has cost $6.6 million so far. More than 700 residences are threatened by the fire.

Claims for damages can be sent to Fort Wainwright’s law center at the address listed below. Residents can call 353-6155 for more information.

U.S. Army Alaska Claims Office

Fort Wainwright Law Center

ATTN: APVR-WJA-AC (Claims)

1060 Gaffney Road #5700

Fort Wainwright, AK 99703-5700

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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