Fire Stories

Fire stories from the national parks highlight events, incidents, and the like, associated with fire and fuels management, as well as fire education, technology, partnerships, and more. Stories highlight work related to Department of the Interior initiatives as well as local and regional initiatives.

The Ruth Fire burned near the toe of the Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Communication Opens the Door for Successful Fire Management

Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska

There are many useful tools available to assist fire managers in making decisions and managing fires, but oftentimes communication is the key to successfully managing a fire.

On July 11, 2009, a Denali National Park and Preserve helicopter detected the Ruth Fire at the toe of the Ruth Glacier. It was reported as 8 acres, 100 percent active, burning in tundra and brush with a high potential for growth. Located within the perimeter of an old fire, it was nearly surrounded by natural barriers, including the glacier to the north, the Ruth River to the south and west, a series of ponds along the southeast flank and the Tokositna River to the east.

The Ruth Fire burned near the toe of the Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve.

2009 was a very active fire year for Alaska. The busy season coupled with the location of the Ruth Fire and its potential for growth initially influenced Alaska Western Area Fire Management Officer Larry Weddle's recommendation to the acting Denali Superintendent, Philip Hooge, to suppress the fire. Air attack reported an unknown structure one mile from the fire on the west side of the Tokositna River. Numerous air taxi services use the flight corridor near the fire. Suppression resources would possibly be limited if the fire grew large due to the number of fires in the region.

Helitack responded to the fire and a retardant ship delivered two water drops. Fire crews on the ground reported difficult access because of rough terrain on the toe of the glacier, prompting the Matsu Area Forestry Fire Management Officer, incident commander and Weddle to change the initial strategy from putting the fire out to slowing it's growth but allowing the west and northwest flanks to burn into the glacier.

Aerial viewpoint.

"The IC's main concern was to keep it from burning into a spruce flat on the east flank or to the structure," Weddle said. "He felt if the fire made it to the spruce flat, the Tokositna River wouldn't hold it."

On the morning of July 12, fire managers reassessed the options for the Ruth Fire that had grown to 31 acres. The firefighters had been successful in preventing it from spreading to the south and east, but the incident commander recommended switching back to full suppression based on the fire behavior he observed, the dryness of the fuels, and the potential for growth. Weddle, after reviewing the fire history in the area and the high probability for a short duration fire due to the frequent precipitation events in the area, was inclined to monitor the fire. He had learned the threatened structure was a lodge, and was actually on the opposite side of the Tokositna River, which is approximately 200 meters wide. With the natural barriers and the fire's inaccessibility, Weddle spoke with park Superintendent Paul Anderson to ascertain his comfort level with moving the fire to a resource benefit objective and monitor it.

"The indices at that time were showing pretty extreme, so we faced some risks associated with allowing it to burn," Weddle said. "Because of the urban interface in the Matsu's Fire Service Area - in fact they had the largest interface fire in Alaska history-they typically suppress their fires. Two CL 215 scoopers and two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters were available, and the Matsu Area Forestry Fire Management Officer and IC's initial recommendation was to use them to wash the fire off the hillside."

While Weddle and Superintendent Anderson wanted to allow the fire to burn, they still had too many unknowns and needed to mitigate some of the concerns. Weddle called the owner of the threatened lodge, who said he was agreeable to having the fire in a monitor status as long as they kept him informed.

"He turned out to be an asset for us," Weddle said. "We talked with him frequently, and he would give us updates on the fire because he could see it from his property."

Air-taxi services presented another concern for Anderson and Weddle. The planes fly visitors around Denali, often landing on the Ruth Glacier, and the fire was right in the main corridor they used. After speaking with them, Weddle discovered they were not worried about the fire because it was small and was not affecting their operations.

"They told us it was a blip on their radar, not really a concern at all," Weddle said. "We don't have many fires on the park's south side, which does not have a history of large fires. Not only were firefighter safety and accessibility big issues, but we would have spent a lot of taxpayer money on aviation resources for a fire that was nearly surrounded by natural barriers."

After working through the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) and talking with the affected parties, the superintendent decided to put the fire in monitor status. However, if the fire should breach a pre-determined geographic point, they would order resources to begin structure protection activities on the east side of the Tokositna River.

"We initially took a suppression action, but then found out more information, were able to address some concerns and changed our strategy. In some ways it was a fairly agonizing experience. There was potentially high political risk, but we had the right contacts and communicated with them. Having everyone on board is essential," stated Weddle.

By July 17, the Ruth Fire totaled 250 acres. On that day, it received over a half inch of rain and remained quiet until fire managers declared it out on August 5. Communication was the key and including diverse partners and stakeholders in the communication process proved vital to the successful management of the Ruth Fire.

Contact: Larry Weddle, Western Area Fire Management Officer
Phone: (907) 683-9548