Research on a flat spot for air evacuations. Talk of old-style civil defense sirens to warn of fast-moving wildfires. Hundreds of urban firefighters training in wildland firefighting techniques while snow still blankets the ground.
This is the new reality in Alaska’s largest city, where a recent series of wildfires near Anchorage and the hottest day on record have sparked fears that a warming climate could soon mean serious, untenable blazes in urban areas — just like in the rest of the drought-plagued American West.
The risk is particularly high in the city’s burgeoning Anchorage Hillside neighborhood, where multimillion dollar homes have pushed farther and farther up steep slopes and to the forest’s edge. Making the challenge even greater is that many of these areas on the Hillside — home to about 35,000 people — have but one road in and out, meaning that fleeing residents could clog a roadway or be cut off from reaching Anchorage at all.
The prospect of a major wildfire there keeps Anchorage Fire Chief Doug Schrage awake at night when conditions are hot and dry.
“I’ve characterized this as probably the single largest threat to the municipality of Anchorage,” he said.
Schrage’s city fire department is adept at fighting blazes in buildings. But as Anchorage has grown, the available land is higher up, where wild and urban areas intersect, and those fires are very different from what his firefighters are trained to combat.
The city also has limited wildfire equipment, and it’s nearly impossible to get a fire engine up some switchback roads to homes nestled high up mountains.
“Our strategy is basically to put as many resources as we have on duty on a small fire so that we can keep it contained” while waiting for assistance from the Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection, Schrage said.
This spring, 360 city firefighters are training on wildland firefighting tactics like using water hoses to create a line around the perimeter of a fire and the city is encouraging homeowners to participate in a program to identify hazards like …
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