ECON 919 - Fire costs, brush piles still growing

Oct 25, 2019


This week, continuing to count the costs of the Swan Lake fire.



The borough assembly spent some time debating some additional funding for the Central Peninsula Landfill at its meeting this week; up to $150,000 will be provided to dispose of slash and brush that’s been coming into the landfill, mostly as a result of people cleaning up around and firewising their homes, generating a lot more of that kind of debris than normal.


Borough Chief of Staff James Baisden explained the need for the additional funds to the assembly’s finance committee. He says the pile of material that needs to be handled has been accumulating for months.

“In the long term, it’s a good thing. It means people are trying to take care of their property and protect it. One thing we’ve heard a lot is this seems like a lot of money to dispose of this. Of course, this is an amount up to ($150,000). We’re going to go out to competitive bids and try to get this done. But (Solid Waste Director Jack Maryott) has got so much brush over there that we would expect probably a three or four week process just to be able to get rid of it this winter. Then hopefully in the springtime, as it accumulates, we do it again. So, twice a year, we’re going to try to take care of it. That’s kind of where we’re at with this.”

Solid Waste Director Jack Maryott told the assembly they arrived at the $150,000 figure based on the processing and labor costs of previous years. For instance, in 2017, the landfill burned 1,100 tons of slash and woody debris. They have a lot more to deal with this year.

“So we extrapolated that out and we know about what it cost us to manage that amount and we currently have 19,970 tons, so almost double (2017). So that’s how we came up with an estimate of what we think this may cost.”

He says that’s a rough estimate, as they don’t have a lot to compare with. The borough has done controlled burns of this kind of debris before, just not on this scale. 

Maryott: “I know the planning department has burnt brush in Hope and some of the Fire Wise sites, but that’s not really comparing an apple to an apple with what we have. So we did have some thought in that we know what it costs us to burn, but to be frank with you, it’s very inefficient in that manner.”

It’s inefficient because they don’t simply set fire to a giant brush pile, and let it go until all the brush is gone. As Maryott explains, it’s a days-long process.

“The way we manage it, because we don’t go 24-7, is we turn it on, turn it off. So we smother it every night. So that takes a lot of excess time. It’s not very efficient at all. It was between 400-450 hours of equipment time; that’s excavators and loaders.”

He says that most of the tonnage coming in is brush, but the last month or two, evidence of a resurgent spruce bark beetle problem is more apparent, too.

I think the people that are interested in cutting and getting firewood is saturated now and we literally have seen trailers full of logs which is not normal.”

Now, because there is so much wood and brush to deal with, the contract the borough is giving out stipulates around-the-clock operations, so the fire doesn’t have to be extinguished and relit every day, however that’s still going to take some time and Maryott says to expect some smoke. And why not chip all that wood and brush, create some nice organic material? Well, cost mostly. And it’s tough to determine what the demand would be for those kinds of products.


Maryott says it also doesn’t make the best fill material, because it would have to be handled twice as the landfill expands to new cells. But it’s not a totally open-loop operation, either. The ash generated from the burns is used to help grow cover grass on the landfill as cells fill up. The assembly eventually approved the funding, and the contract is now out for bids.

Now, this week’s number: Two. That’s how many requests federal regulators have received for additional study about where a cross-state natural gas pipeline would end. Both the city of Valdez and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for an additional draft environmental impact statement, saying the current choice for the line’s terminus in Nikiski didn’t get enough review over the last half-decade. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has more questions for FERC, which is in the process of writing that draft EIS. It’s expected to be released next spring.