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Fire mitigation study will examine rural peninsula communities

Funny River Road in winter 2022.
Riley Board
Funny River Road in winter 2022.

Nikiski, Cooper Landing and Funny River will soon go under the proverbial microscope for a study about the social and ecological elements of wildfire mitigation.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly signed on in early February to work with the Wildfire Research Center, or WiRē, on a wildfire mitigation research project across several rural peninsula communities.

WiRē has worked with 26 communities in five states on similar research, though this project will be the first in Alaska.

Chris Barth is a fire mitigation specialist who works with WiRē and also responds to wildfires, including the Swan Lake fire of 2019. He said researchers with the center have been long interested in Alaska and had already looked into getting rid of fallen trees and other wildfire fuel on public lands on the peninsula.

“Knowing that the Kenai has seen a number of large fires in recent years, and because there’s some work that’s been done on public lands in that area,” he said. “So I think things all aligned at the right time.”

He said the work on the peninsula is part of a National Science Foundation-funded project. The center will work with local firefighting agencies on a two-pronged study.

The first step is collecting data on wildfire risks to properties. The second step is sending a survey to every household in the study area.

“Through the risk assessment, we understand the biophysical conditions on the ground that contribute to wildfire risk or home vulnerability, etc,” Barth said. “And then the household survey is an opportunity for those living in those locations to respond how they view those same things.”

Barth said this allows the researchers to understand how residents view their personal level of wildfire vulnerability, and to figure out how willing residents are to engage in wildfire mitigation on their own properties.

After it collects data, WiRē can use its findings to help local agencies and borough emergency departments figure out how to best cater to residents. Those local agencies include Cooper Landing Emergency Services, Central Emergency Services, the Nikiski Fire Service Area and the borough’s Office of Emergency Management.

Barth said past research has identified factors like a local ordinance about vegetation that made it difficult for residents to do wildfire mitigation on their properties. He said in that case, the local ordinance was changed.

“When all that information was combined, gathered, analyzed, etc, we were able to work with our partners and say, “Hey, these people would like to do these things, but some of the things that are in place in your community are preventing them from doing it,”’ he said.

In other communities, he said WiRē has helped determine the best ways to get information out.

WiRē staff will arrive on the peninsula in May to work on data collection, and work on virtual trainings this month. They plan to send the household survey later in the summer.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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