Alaska’s busy firefighting season comes at a price higher than the cash-strapped state planned to spend on fire suppression this summer. After lengthy debate over how much cash it should take to operate the Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for battling wildland fires, the Legislature approved $6.19 million for fire suppression preparedness and activity. That comes in addition to $13.4 million in federal funds for firefighting.
So far this summer, 100,000-plus acres have burned statewide — a relatively small patch of the state compared to years past.
“The size, the number of fires this year may be pretty light,” said Pete Buist of the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. “If it’s out in the middle of nowhere, it’s not a big deal. These haven’t been nowhere.”The Sockeye Fire that scorched an estimated 7,264 acres in and around Willow, displacing hundreds of residents and claiming 26 homes, has already cost the state $3.1 million, according to Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry.
Even if some of the money the state spends is eventually reimbursed by the federal government via the Alaska Fire Service, that process can take a year or longer. For now, Mowry said, the state will have to put up the cash.”I can’t imagine that the Legislature is going to tell us to stop fighting a fire that’s threatening a community. I don’t think that would sit well with that community,” Mowry said, adding that the division is preparing to ask lawmakers for a third time to get additional funding to get through the summer.
“We’re stretched thin, and there’s a lot of summer left,” Buist said.