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Smoke signals: Early fires warn Alaskans of dry forest conditions

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Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2010 3:48 am | Updated: 1:12 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

News-Miner editorial

The past winter’s low snowfall might not have much to do with the overall severity of the coming summer fire season. That will depend on the summer rains. But the sparse snow is relevant today.

Its early disappearance has exposed dead grasses and other vegetation. These have dried in the warm, clear weather. So Thursday brought reports of the season’s first serious wildfire, which covered several acres south of Anderson along the Parks Highway.

The fire is a timely reminder that residents of the Interior need to be careful with fires, starting now.

Burn permits have been needed for any open burning (other than camp fires) since April 1. Such permits, and state law, require mineral soil or rock, or some other effective fire break, around any burn site. The permit rule is in effect through Aug. 31.

Burning in approved containers is allowed without a permit. However, state Division of Forestry officials note that, in their experience, the majority of burn barrels do not meet the definition of an “approved” container. The division’s website has detailed directions for building a proper container.

If the fire danger grows high enough, the state can prohibit burning under the terms of a permit or in a container.

Even if a person complies with all the rules, a fire’s escape is “presumptive evidence” of negligence, under state law. In such cases, the state can and does press misdemeanor charges. Those convicted are punishable with fines of up to $500 and imprisonment of between 10 days and six months.

That’s only the beginning, though. Any individual whose property is harmed by a fire and any government that incurs costs in fighting the fire or loses property can bring a civil case to recover double damages. Again, in such a case, the fire’s escape is presumptive evidence of negligence and is all that is needed for the harmed person or government to win a claim.

These are not laws that Alaskans want to explore firsthand. It’s best to avoid them diligently from the start.

During summer 2009, Interior Alaska’s communities saw and breathed in a great deal of smoke. Fortunately, the fires that produced it were located mostly outside populated areas, with a few notable and scary exceptions that were handled quickly by firefighters. This year, we must all be vigilant and do what we can to help firefighters repeat that pattern.

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