UPDATED 4:10 p.m.: The Alaska Division of Forestry announced Tuesday it is suspending all burn permits effective midnight April 30 in anticipation of impacts of COVID-19 on the state's wildland firefighting resources this summer.
The use of burn barrels, burning debris piles and any other burning activity authorized under previously issued permits will be prohibited on all state, private and municipal land.
Any person or business that violates the burn-permit suspension may be issued a citation to pay a fine or appear in court.
The statewide burn suspension does not include cooking, warming or signaling fires that are less than 3 feet in diameter and with flames no more than 2 feet high. It also doesn't affect commercially manufactured outdoor cooking and heating devices with built-in open flame safety devices.
The Division of Forestry is anticipating a wildland firefighter shortage because of COVID-19 travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. The division also cited the increased risk to firefighters of contracting and spreading COVID-19 when responding to human-caused nuisance fires.
The division is still trying to figure out what would be involved in bringing up firefighters and support staff from the Lower 48 this year, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic, said Tim Mowry, a wildland fire public information officer with the division.
"These are all conversations we're having on a statewide basis with our federal partners and also at a national level,'' he said. "There's a lot of energy being put right now into trying to figure out how we're going to respond to fires in this environment.
"For Alaska, that means can we bring people up from the Lower 48? If we do, do they have to be quarantined for 14 days? Is there a way we can give them a quick (COVID-19) test to get them out in the field?
"Because if we bring people up here and have them quarantine for 14 days, that's not realistic for what we need and what we do," he said. "Right now, we're sort of in an information-gathering phase and trying to develop best practices for everything from disinfecting engines and helicopters we put people in on a daily basis.
"And trying to figure out how we would set up a fire camp with 500 people."
The three main agencies that fight wildfires in Alaska are the Division of Forestry, the federal Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
Last summer, there were 719 wildfires on state and federal lands in Alaska, and 2.68 million acres burned, according to Mowry.
There were more than 5,000 firefighters involved, including about 130 20-person crews from the Lower 48, Mowry said. The numbers include support staff.
The virus pandemic has made planning a challenge.
"What we do on a regular basis, in terms of wildfire, is assess risks and then mitigate risk," Mowry said. "This year, with COVID being thrown into the picture, a lot of our energy right now is trying to develop a response and a plan."
The lead component of the plan is to keep firefighters safe.
"That's always our No. 1 priority is firefighter and public safety,'' Mowry said. "So we're trying to figure out how to respond to fires in a safe way to protect both our personnel and the public."
The Alaska Division of Forestry has used the Alaska National Guard to help battle wildland figures and is discussing it again.
"Realistically, I think they're going to have their hands full with this COVID situation and I don't think they would be available in mass quantity to assist us, but that's something we're always looking at," Mowry said.
National Guard troops provided help last year with traffic control during last year's Swan Creek fire on the Kenai Peninsula and the Shovel Creek fire northwest of Fairbanks.
Until the burn-permit suspension takes effect May 1, small and large-scale burning on state, municipal and private lands will still require permits from the state, or local governments whose burn-permit programs meet or exceed state standards.
The Division of Forestry will reevaluate the burn suspension on a regular basis to determine if and when it's safe to rescind it.
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