Frustrated with many questions about the now 67,000 acre wildfire burning in their backyards, Kasilof and Funny River residents flooded into community meetings organized by the Alaska Interagency Management Team to understand if firefighters have control.
The first meeting took place at Tustumena Elementary School Thursday with locals packed into the school gymnasium to hear the latest status from Incident Commander Rob Allen.
Everyone got a map of the current wildfire size and an explanation of the ground teams concentrated efforts in the north and southwest flank. With the arrival of the Memorial Day weekend, many of the Kasilof residents voiced concerns with recreational visitors having campfires. The Division of Forestry on Friday, which is already under burn suspension, also banned the use of campfires.
Allen said he had 218 boots on the ground Thursday with 400 to 500 on Friday. Currently 374 firefighters are on the ground. The two priorities continue to protect homes closest to the fire’s perimeter by creating dozer lines along Mile 7 of Funny River Road to ensure the fire doesn’t reach black spruce trees that go right into Soldotna.
In Kasilof, people asked if their homes are threatened what can they do?
“You are all here to call us in case we need to go or is someone going to put out the fire,” said a man standing by the crowded exit. “Can you put out the fire or not? It’s that simple.”
Presently the fire is has come within three miles of the Pollard subdivision. Some residents in the crowd asked what progress has been made near mile 103, where the western edge of the fire is closest to the Sterling Highway. On Friday a little after 1 p.m. the team sent out an evacuation advisory for Pollard Subdivision. This means get ready as an evacuation request could be issued in the future, according to the update.
Allen said after flying over the fire with Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager John Morton, he felt a lot better about the fire not getting a big head of steam with a lot of lakes, broken terrain and less black spruce between the fire edge and homes.
“That whole swampy area holds a lot more water than I thought it,” he said. “The reason I’m not saying everybody pack up because I don’t think it’s going to make it here in the next 48 to 72 hours.”
With the full aerial support of four CL215 water bombers and tankers and more crews from the Lower 48 joining the fight, they have seen progress with 15 percent containment. Allen said while he felt water was the most effective tool, Morton has authorized the use of retardant in the refuge to protect homes.
“The commitment from the fish and wildlife want to keep the fire as small as possible and not impact homes here on the Sterling Highway. That’s another big thing because if it gets into some of these waterways it could be devastating to fish,” he said. “When the fire gets to that point I will call the borough and say let’s evacuate. We are not at that point right now.”
Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management Director Scott Walden answered questions about evacuation. He said the borough has a plan for how long an evacuation of certain areas would be needed and are in immediate involvement with decisions from the Alaska Division of Forestry.
“I know you are sitting down here look 3 to 4 miles away and see flames 200 feet high that’s intimidating,” he said. “It looks a lot closer than it is. We know how fast it can travel.”
Walden said when people ask how close the fire gets before an evacuation is issued, he will leave that judgment to the Division of Forestry as they coordinated at the Incident Command Center at Skyview High School, situated directly in front of the wildfire.
Allen said he talked with the Chena Hotshot superintendent about the moment the Funny River wildfire got out of hand Monday.
“They thought they were close to containment and then the wind picked up and he watched it walk away from him and it was the most hopeless feeling he had in a long time,” Allen said.
From there the fire grew from 10 acres to 800 on day one, 7,000 to 22,000 on day two, then 44,000 and now 66,000 and spreading along the Tustumena Lake shore, where the fire also approaches a cluster of cabins in Bear Creek to the east.
“What we are seeing now when the fire is burning it’s making sustained runs in areas of black spruce,” Allen said.
The Division of Forestry handed out fire wise information for what residents can do around their home and provided tips of lessons learned from the Caribou Hills fire in 2007, which grew to 50,000 acres with more than 100 homes lost near Ninilchik.
“Clear out fine fuels from around the home, mow grass, cut limbs on trees, dispose of slash and water your yard,” said Judy with the Soldotna Division of Forestry. “That’s what you can do in the meantime Think where an ember can start a fire at your home. That will help create defensible space. It only takes a spark.”
Kasilof resident Marc Berezin lives off John’s Rd. near Mile 103 of the Sterling Highway. He said he felt more comfortable after hearing how the swampland between his place and the fire perimeter served as a break. He said he was still nervous about what could happen in the future if the winds change.
“Given its proximity to us is now 3 miles and factoring in how it can travel 7 miles in an hour, doing the math led me to think we may not have much time to get out,” he said. “Without all that black spruce, by the time the winds do shift, it’s only a matter of when they will have that fire break in the middle.”
Berezin said he did some preventative fire wise maintenance around his property and with his wife they have put together a plan in case of an evacuation. As a 39-year Alaskan resident, he witnessed the Caribou Hills fire, but he admits the Funny River wildfire scares him.
“My worst fantasy is that if a fire came over our way, I don’t see our house surviving,” he said. “Too many trees close to the house, too much fuel. I’m hoping the weather cooperates. As far as where we are going to live when our house burns down, no we haven’t gotten that far.”
Darren Finley, Soldotna forestry firefighter, said he has full confidence in the command team because Allen has fought fires in Alaska and knows the fuel type and has the ability to obtain the needed resources to contain the fire. He said the local forestry is still staffed to the max ready to respond to any other calls.
“We’re tired but we are still ready to go,” he said. “We have been working before this fire started, working all the way though. It is going to be a long summer. We are still in it. We are ready because it’s our job.”
Finley said the firefighters on scene do not take the holiday off. They work long hours and camp near the fire’s perimeter and work to the point of exhaustion. Their bravery did not go unnoticed by the crowd of more than 200 people at the Tustumena school meeting.
“I would like to thank these firefighters for risking their lives,” said Kasilof resident George Pierce and followed by a long applause from the crowd.