It has been three days since the first report of a five acre wildfire on a horse trail off of Funny River Road. The blaze had consumed more than 44,000 acres as of Wednesday — more than doubling in size in the span of 24 hours.
As the wildfire spreads, it has burned an area more than 10 miles long and 6 miles wide — nearly twice the size of Manhattan Island — in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Firefighters, emergency services and hotshot crews from all over the United States and Canada are maneuvering into position to continue battling the blaze.
A small crew of about 48 Wednesday should burgeon to more than 100 by Thursday according to Alaska Department of Natural Resources — Division of Forestry officials.
Brad Nelson, health and safety officer for Central Emergency Services said he learned the wildfire had reached 44,000 acres in size after a briefing at a command center in Skyview High School Wednesday at 6 p.m. The vast majority of the fire is burning to the east further into the Refuge, he said.
“(The fire) did exactly what we were hoping for,” he said.
The fire is not currently threatening any structures and at its closest point to the Sterling Highway is burning nearly four miles away, Nelson said. That area is close to Mile 103 near Slikok Creek.
While no evacuations have been ordered, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management office sent out robo-calls to certain residents to provide information.
People living along the Sterling Highway, from Sterling to Homer have reported thick clouds of smoke and ash covering cities, homes and the highway as the fire spreads.
“It was a multi-fold operation to let people know what a reverse 911 call would look like so an evacuation call would not be a surprise,” Nelson said. “It also let us know it is working correctly. It killed two birds with one stone.”
After the fire reached Tustumena Lake Tuesday, it could no longer burn straight south and instead spread along the shoreline burning to the east and west, said Andy Alexandrou, public information officer with the Division of Forestry.
“It can’t go any further south unless it wants to burn on water,” he said.
On the southeastern side along the shore of Tustumena Lake, the fire is still about four miles from the Bear Creek subdivision where 10 cabins remote wilderness cabins stand, Alexandrou said.
The two priority residential areas for firefighters to protect are Kasilof to the west of the fire and Funny River Road to the north. Nelson said crews that worked all day Wednesday would rest while CES crews patrol Funny River Road and the Sterling Highway in Kasilof. Crews are using bulldozers in both areas to hold the fire line after Division of Forestry and CES worked overnight to keep the fire from crossing near Mile 7 of Funny River Road.
While some reported that the fire had crossed the road early Wednesday morning, Alexandrou said that embers had blown across the road from the main body of the fire, but had been extinguished immediately.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked to reduce the buildup of beetle-killed spruce, a dry timber, along the Funny River Road in an attempt to stop the fire’s advance.
Two water scooping planes sent into the area from Canada have arrived, cleared customs in Anchorage and will be ready to dump water by Thursday, Nelson said.
Fire control operations changed hands from the Division of Forestry to a Type 2 Incident Management team, a specialized collection of firefighters who handle emergency fires.
The Funny River Road wildfire was first reported on a horse trail three miles south of the Soldotna Airport at 4:15 p.m. Monday. Sarah Donchi, who lives on Funny River Road, said she has used the trail for horse expeditions but it doesn’t get a lot of use in the summer.
“It is not much of a trail,” she said. “It’s more of a winter trail for skiers but there are some hikers and hunters who probably use it.”
The trail was cleared five years ago after the Shanta Creek fire in 2009, that consumed more than 13,000 acres, she said.
Along the trail in the refuge, the forest is old growth and black spruce trees. It it is extremely dry, she said.
“The whole area needs to burn to get rid of all the dry brush,” Donchi said. “It started fairly close to us but it looks like it’s moving south and burning away.”
She is not too worried about the fire moving in her direction but said she hooked up the horse trailers “just in case” when the fire burned within four miles of her home. With the firebreaks in place from the last fire in 2009, she said for the fire to come into her community it would have to burn through new firebreaks.
As Central Peninsula residents awoke Wednesday morning, a haze of acrid smoke and ash had settled into communities along the fire’s western edge which parallels the Sterling Highway.
Greg and Teresa Matranga, like many others in Kasilof, have been watching the looming ash cloud to the west, but got a nasty shock Wednesday when a neighbor’s house caught fire in Kasilof, sending threatening black smoke toward their property from the east.
Soldotna Emergency Services responded to a fully engulfed cabin on Irish Hills Avenue and the Matrangas looked on as firefighters tried to keep the house fire from spreading.
“It’s so dry, Teresa Matranga said. “I’d have been nervous even if there wasn’t a wildfire. The thing is, all the dry trees around it … that’s how they get started. One little spark gets out and ‘whoosh’ it goes up like a Roman Candle.”
The Matranga’s tidy ranch sits on a gravel road, surrounded by towering trees that dwarf the houses in their neighborhood.
The road has no sign, so Teresa Matranga flagged down CES responders to guide them to the fire at her neighbor’s house.
The heat from the neighbor’s house mixed with the heat from the Funny River wildfire, but smoke was not as thick Wednesday afternoon as it had been Tuesday, Teresa Matranga said.
Greg Matranga said he got up at 4 a.m. Wednesday and the sun was obscured and discolored by the smoke cloud.
“It was so red it was like Armageddon,” he said with a laugh.
Teresa said the whole property was engulfed in smoke from the wildfire for most of Tuesday and Wednesday.
“It smelled like a campfire and it was all nice and lovely, but then it started to get kind of intense.”
As she spoke two dogs, a pitbull and a pomeranian, barked wildly in the back of a car parked on the Matranga’s property.
They had been rescued from the house fire, she said.
Nelson said the house fire was not related to the nearby wildfire. The home was fully engulfed by the time crews arrived at about 1:30 p.m. and crews put out the fire and surrounding vegetation to ensure it didn’t spread, he said. Afterward, the Division of Forestry checked the scene to make sure the fire was out.
Near Mile 103 of the Sterling Highway, Stacy Schweigel and her family have been watching the fire develop from her deck.
“We have a panoramic view of the mountains normally, but now we have a panoramic view of the fire. We’re just praying the wind doesn’t turn.”
Schweigel, whose horses and family are ready to be packed out at a moment’s notice, said the Funny River fire isn’t the first to threaten her family.
“When we lived in Montana, we were in one of the biggest fires they had and we had like 40 horses we had to evacuate,” she said. “I’ve been right in the middle of a terrible, terrible, terrible wildfire.”
Photos from that fire are now hanging on the wall in her Soldotna home.
“I’m like, OK, two times is too many,” she said, laughing.
As the fire continues to develop, the Homer Electric Association has raised concerns about two high-voltage transmission lines running between Kasilof and Soldotna.
HEA personnel flew over the fire area Tuesday and the fire appeared to be about four miles east of the lines, but smoke made a similar flyover difficult Wednesday morning and crews were unable to tell how far the fire was from the lines, according to an HEA media release. HEA personnel will try again Wednesday evening, according to the release.
At this time, there are no plans to disrupt service, according to the release.
Funny River Road remained open to resident traffic Wednesday to allow people to attend graduation ceremonies. Forestry spokeswoman Michelle Weston cautioned drivers in the area to go slow and watch for fire crews who access the area.
Alexandrou said the Nurses Cabin on Tustumena Lake came close to being the first structure lost. Fire burned right up to it, but the cabin did not burn and is safe, he said.
Air attack will continue Thursday as two Conair tanker planes will dump retardant in the west fire line to protect the Kasilof community. Airdrops stalled Wednesday morning due to the smoke, which reduced visibility, but resumed in the afternoon after it cleared up, Weston said.
The borough has set up a hotline for calls and reminds residents evacuation planning is in place and information can be found on their website. For more information on the fire call 714-2495.
Information booths have been set up at the Kasilof Mercantile Store and at the Fred Meyer and Safeway in Soldotna, Weston said.
Air Quality Advisories are in effect for Southcentral Alaska. Information about smoke is available from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation at http://dec.alaska.gov/air/am/smoke.htm
CES is urging residents who live near the fire to stay aware and be prepared. In the event of an evacuation information is available at http://www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency-mgmt/fire
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.
Fire updates, photos and questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.