U.S. Army Alaska officials admit that artillery training started one of the Alaska largest wildfires of the year, which cost an estimated $9 million to extinguish and scorched 87,000 acres of Interior Alaska.
A fire sparked during a live-fire training exercise at Stuart Creek near Fairbanks that started June 12.
With the help of the Alaska Fire Service and 40,000 gallons of water, the fire seemed to be contained by June 19, according to Army spokesperson Maj. Alan Brown. But it apparently smoldered and quickly grew out of control when heat and wind conditions worsened days later.
The Army conducted two separate investigations: one to determine the cause of the blaze and the other to examine policies and procedures that led to a decision to fire artillery when there was a known extreme risk of fire.
According to a statement announcing the findings of the investigations, the fire was definitely caused by the 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment, part of the Fairbanks-based 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
“The Fire Weather Index during this period fluctuated from moderate to high and eventually to extreme conditions with a ‘Red Flag Warning,’” according to the statement.
But even with that knowledge of the weather conditions, a decision was made to let the exercise continue, and procedures were not followed leading to that decision.
U.S. Army Alaska procedures were not strictly followed, according to the statement, in particular the process used to get a waiver so training could continue when there is an extreme fire risk.
Instead of getting approval from Fort Wainwright's chief of operations, an installation range officer not named by the Army approved a waiver.
Regulations also forbid the training use of high-explosive 155mm rounds during extreme fire conditions, but those were used during the exercise.
The investigating officer recommends that the use of non-high-explosive artillery rounds for training purposes and that in similar situations in the future only the deputy commander at Fort Wainwright be allowed to approve waivers.
"That's important because he's up there closer to where the gunneries and training is occurring," Brown said. "He's able to coordinate, perhaps more easily, with the Fire Service and our fire chief ... if something does go wrong."
Over the summer, the Army had wavered on its responsibility for the fire in official statements, with garrison commander Col. Ron Johnson telling attendees of a community meeting that training exercises had started the blaze.
Army officials subsequently retreated from that position, taking damage claims for “possible wrongdoing” but emphasizing that an investigation would take place when the fire was extinguished.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she prompted the Army to make findings of the investigation public through a report to the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
“It provides accountability by establishing responsibility for this unnecessary disaster, changes policies to minimize the chance it would happen again – and begins rebuilding bridges between the U.S. Army Alaska and the surrounding communities," Murkowski said.