Investigations pin Stuart Creek 2 fire on Army training

AP File Photo/Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Two Defense Department investigations into the cause and handling of a large and costly Interior wildfire have led to immediate changes in training procedures in Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Oct. 22.

The first investigation into the Stuart Creek 2 fire, which burned more than 87,000 acres west of Fairbanks over two months, confirmed a suspicion that the fire had been caused by artillery training by Fort Wainwright Army post personnel.

“I think it was significant that the Army recognized and acknowledged that was through incendiary devices — that that was what started the initial fire,” Murkowski said in an interview with the Journal.

On Aug. 1 Murkowski requested an investigation into the cause of the fire and language was included in the Defense Department funding bill requiring one. All told, federal agencies spent nearly $21 million fighting the Stuart Creek 2 fire.

According to an Oct. 21 release from Fort Wainwright officials, the Stuart Creek 2 fire started June 19 and was thought to be suppressed until it resurfaced June 25. The source of the fire is believed to be 155-millimeter high explosive artillery rounds designed to burn out 1,000 feet above the ground. Members of the 25th Infantry Division initially conducted live-fire training exercises at the Stuart Creek 2 site June 12 to 14 with no reported fires. A second round of training June 15 to 19 was also conducted and on June 19 a Bureau of Land Management flight crew monitoring the area reported a fire that would grow to about 40 acres that day.

When the report of the fire was relayed to Army officials firing was stopped, the release stated. BLM Alaska Fire Service teams responded by dropping more than 40,000 gallons of water on the fire and concluded it was contained with no visible smoke by the end of June 19.

The Alaska Fire Service happens to be headquartered at Fort Wainwright.

A June 20 request to resume live-fire training by the artillery unit was denied and the exercise ended June 21.

The Alaska Fire Service continued to monitor the burned area and no indication of fire was reported until June 25, when the fire began to grow to despite suppression efforts by the Fort Wainwright Fire Department and the Fire Service.

The second investigation into Army range procedures prompted changes to how training would be handled during high fire-risk times, Murkowski said.

In the future, the Army’s deputy commanding officer at Fort Wainwright will approve all training waivers applied for under “Extreme Fire Weather Index” conditions, the release states. That authority was delegated to lower ranking officials in the Stuart Creek 2 incident, Murkowski said.

The senator said Army officials also told her that non-explosive training devices would be used during dry periods, a practice that hasn’t been conducted in Alaska before, she said.

Murkowski said she is pleased the Army responded to the situation and has taken swift action to prevent a similar situation from happening again, but she has not heard if Defense will reimburse the Interior Department for the cost of fighting the Stuart Creek 2 fire.

Overall, nearly 600 fires burned roughly 1.3 million acres across Alaska during the 2013 fire season.

Because of a prolonged fire season that burned more than 3.5 million acres nationwide, Murkowski said the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which she is the ranking member, sourced $36 million to fund Interior Department’s wild land fire management activities and $600 million to the Forest Service for fire suppression as part of the continuing resolution agreement that restarted the government Oct. 17.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

10/24/2013 - 7:14am