Alaska prepares for worst

As the 15,000-acre Tamarack Fire continued to grow in central Alaska, responders elsewhere in the state talked about the value of collaboration before disaster even strikes.

BY SUSAN KIM | WASILLA, Alaska | June 9, 2006

"A comparable event today would have far more devastating effects."

—Beatrice Adler

As the 15,000-acre Tamarack Fire continued to grow in central Alaska, responders elsewhere in the state talked about the value of collaboration before disaster even strikes.

The blaze - fanned by 25-mph wind - was still pushing toward the city of Nenana on Friday, forcing scattered evacuations.

Nearly 300 firefighters were battling the fire, and smoke was presenting a breathing hazard for people with respiratory problems, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Nenana is about an hour's drive southwest of Fairbanks.

Further south, Alaska's disaster responders commented on how strengthening relationships can vastly improve response.

In the state's Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough - the fastest-growing part of Alaska - faith-based and voluntary disaster response organizations have formed a new borough-level Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

They've got wildfires - among other disasters - on their minds, explained Beatrice Adler, the borough's emergency management programs coordinator.

Right now, responders are very aware of the state's tinder-box conditions, said Adler. "At this time of year our thoughts are constantly on the threat of wildfire."

Next week, on June 15, Alaskans will remember the 10th anniversary of the Miller's Reach Fire, which destroyed more than 400 structures and burned 37,000 acres of land in a semi-rural suburban community.

This month much of the state has been under a Red Flag Warning. Burn permits have been revoked, and all outdoor burning is prohibited. "Conditions are the same as they were 10 years ago: hot, dry and windy," said Adler.

Responders in Alaska try to promote the national Firewise Communities program, a multi-agency effort designed to involve homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers and others in the effort to protect people, property and natural resources from wildland fire.

The state is also at high risk for earthquakes. "Living on the Ring Of Fire we are always aware of earthquakes," said Adler. "We had what we call a 'jiggle' just the other day."

The Ring of Fire is an arc of volcanic and seismic activity stretching from New Zealand, along the eastern edge of Asia, north across the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and south along the coast of North and South America.

The "jiggle" occurred on May 9, in the Fox Islands region of Alaska. The temblor was felt strongly in Nikolski and Unalaska, but no substantial damage was reported.

It was a different story on Good Friday, 1964, when a 9.2-magnitude quake struck the Prince William Sound off the coast of South Central Alaska. The temblor - called the Great Alaska Earthquake - killed 131 people.

At last month's Mat-Su VOAD meeting, where 16 people gathered, one man remembered being in downtown Anchorage when the quake hit.

Mat-Su VOAD members are determined to draw wisdom from this history, explained Adler. "In 1964, the population and infrastructure in South Central Alaska were both small. A comparable event today would have far more devastating effects."

The Mat-Su borough - home to about 72,000 people - is slightly larger than the state of West Virginia.

Once more of a rural outpost, these days Alaska is not as different from the rest of the U.S. as it used to be, reflected Adler. "What was truly rural 20 years ago is now suburban. People used to be prepared for emergencies. The lifestyle required it. Now, we have many residents who expect to be taken care of."

This is a dangerous expectation, warned Adler. "Alaska becomes an island in a disaster. We are far away from supply sources."

Unlike grocery stores in the rest of the country, Alaska's grocery stores don't warehouse food. "We only have a 7-day supply in the state," said Adler. "Our supplies arrive primarily by barge, some by truck and fewer by air. All of those supply lines would be disrupted in a disaster. Lack of road access in many areas makes it even more critical for people to be prepared to be on their own for two weeks."

Coordination isn't always second nature to people in Alaska, admitted Adler. "Alaskans tend to be fiercely independent," she said. "That may be a gross generalization, but from my perspective of having lived here for 25 years, it's true. We're not joiners. We like our privacy. We tend to want to do things our way."

Adler's colleague, Mike Gibson, has been in Alaska almost 30 years. Gibson, who worked in emergency management at the state level, is now a disaster recovery manager for the Mat-Su Borough. Gibson said the VOAD system helps people form strong relationships before disasters happen. "You have to develop those links ahead of time," he said. "I believe that's going to save all of our bacon in the long run."

It's not that people and organizations haven't been working on and planning for disaster response, reflected Steve Eldred, president of the Mat-Su VOAD. "It's just that no one knew what anyone else was doing. This meeting of representatives of various groups gives us that personal touch of knowing one another and making the possibility of our communicating, cooperating and collaborating together in a disaster more of a reality."

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