Fairbanks, AK - It’s been one year since the Stuart Creek 2 Wildfire was reported burning in the Yukon Training area northeast of Fairbanks. The blaze, ignited during an army artillery training exercise, burned more than 87,000 acres. It was one of the largest wildfires in the United States in 2013. Later, military officials conducted multiple investigations to find out why Army leaders signed off on the use of high explosive ammunition at a time when the National Weather Service had issued Red Flag Warnings. In response, training procedures have since been rewritten.
Deputy Commanding Officer, Colonel Adam Lange signs off on training that takes place at Fort Wainwright. "We’re certainly putting a lot more rigor into it. Based on experiences last year, we certainly don’t want anything like that to repeat again," he said.
But Lange hasn’t always been the guy in charge of decisions when it comes to training exercises that take place during the wildfire season. Last June, a field artillery unit trained with live fire when the Fire Weather Index indicated high or extreme conditions.
Fort Wainwright’s Fire Chief did not approve live fire that week, but was repeatedly overridden by an Installation Range Officer based more than 300 miles away at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. The overrides prompted the Director of Emergency Services to email then Deputy Commanding Officer, Colonel Ron Johnson. He has since retired. In response, Johnson emailed Colonel Mark Kneram, at JBER, who oversees training and operations for US Army Alaska.
“Our fire situation is critical,” wrote Johnson. “Please make sure your people have a very clear picture of the situation here before they decide to override the fire recommendations from the fire professionals,” the email continues. “I can tell you that it isn’t based on a bunch of civilians trying to keep soldiers from conducting training.”
The email was sent only a day before the Stuart Creek 2 fire was reported. It was ignited by artillery used during the training. Two weeks later, the blaze had grown beyond 80,000 acres. Residents in Two Rivers as well as their sled dogs and livestock were evacuated as the fire approached the small community, 20 miles from Fairbanks.
"My sense is the community is a little raw about last year. There was a lot of emotion surrounding the Stuart Creek Fire," Colonel Lange said. Lange replaced Colonel Johnson. He says the army has since adopted a new approach to live fire training at times when fire danger is high. "It’s OK under these conditions now, because many of our train-ups now are not tied to a unit getting ready to go out the door to say ‘Well, do we really have to do that, can we do it another way?' And if there’s an answer 'yes' to any of those questions, then maybe we do it another way or we do it another day," he said.
This year, Lange has the authority to approve waiver requests for training when there are Red Flag warnings. Earlier this spring, Lange says he signed off on just such a waiver. "So, we have some ranges where you can shoot into an old ribbon of a river, where there’s nothing but rock and gravel with no fuels in it whatsoever, and there’s still standing water and ice left over from winter," he said. "That would be a great place to shoot high explosive artillery right now."
But some of the changes to procedures won’t come easy. A report that came from one investigation suggests the acquisition of artillery rounds that are less likely to set fire to the forest. Colonel Lange says that’s easier said than done.
"It turns out the Army has some, but it’s very little stockage of it and so US Army Alaska has requested to receive a bunch and we have not been able to get the army to grant us permission to use that. The Army has very large stocks of traditional 155 high explosive ammunition and they want us to use that before it becomes no good any longer," he said.
Lange says the recommended ammunition might be available for training at Fort Wainwright in fiscal year 2016.
A final report on what happened with Stuart Creek 2 also calls for more coordination and training with the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service. Those meetings do take place. The report also recommends AFS acquire thermal sight equipment to pinpoint hot spots during monitoring missions. According to a spokesman at AFS, fire managers already use infrared technology when they fly over fires. A final suggestion calls for a review of the Memorandum of Agreement between the Army and the Alaska Fire Service. That effort is ongoing.