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Fort Wainwright Fire Department, BLM advised against artillery exercises before fire

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Posted: Saturday, August 3, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 8:17 am, Mon Aug 5, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Both the Fort Wainwright Fire Department and the Bureau of Land Management advised against artillery training during a day of high fire risk this June, but neither recommendation was binding under U.S. Army Alaska procedures.

The state Army leadership has decided subsequently to re-evaluate the procedures used to decide whether to green light training during “red flag” conditions when risk of fire is high, said Maj. Alan Brown, spokesman for Army Alaska at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

Brown said it’s too early to say officially whether Army training ignited the 85,000-acre fire, which is still burning but in mop-up mode between Eielson Air Force Base and Chena Hot Springs Road. A field artillery unit was conducting what he described as a “routine” exercise on June 19, the day the fire started in the military’s Yukon Training Area, but an official investigation into the fire’s origin is still in process. Last month, Fort Wainwright garrison commander Col. Ron Johnson told a community meeting in Pleasant Valley that the exercise started the fire.

The fire was initially contained before spreading north and causing evacuations in the Pleasant Valley and Two Rivers area. The fire destroyed three cabins and two outbuildings to the south of the Chena River and also burned power lines and fiber-optic cables used to service the military training area.

Fire suppression has cost $19.8 million, according to the Alaska Fire Service.

Brown said the Army Alaska procedures for deciding when to train have to balance the soldiers’ needs to train and the risks, which include the risks of staring a fire.

“The balance between getting out there and training in the few really good summer months that we have and making sure that nothing happens for the range, for the soldiers and the community, that’s something that we take very seriously,” he said.

Under current procedure, a unit commander, usually the leader of a company — about 100 soldiers — must request a waiver to conduct training on days when the Bureau of Land Management determines there is a high risk of fire danger. In the waiver request, the commanding officer identifies ways the unit can mitigate risk such as having firing suppression resources ready and not firing smoke or high-incendiary rounds, Brown said. A commander planning to conduct training on multiple days of red flag conditions would need multiple waivers.

In the June 19 training, the unit limited the number of rounds it fired and did not fire smoke or high-incendiary rounds, Brown said.

The waiver request then goes to the Army Alaska G3, a colonel at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson who oversees training and operations throughout the state. The G3 makes the decision about whether to grant the waiver. The waiver request also goes to the fire chief at Fort Wainwright Fire and Emergency Services, who makes a non-binding recommendation on the waiver.

In the case of the June 19 fire, the fire chief recommended not granting the waiver, Brown said.

As of Friday evening the Stuart Creek 2 Fire was 71 percent contained. The fire is expected to emit smoke today because of hot spots within the perimeter and a burnout operation on the southeast corner, but the activity should not be a concern for Chena Hot Springs Road residents because the north side of the fire remains contained, said Terry Anderson, a spokesman for the Alaska-based Type 3 team working the fire. Seventy-one people are now assigned to the fire.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.

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