'Knocking at our back door': Fire edges closer to communities

It’s dry in Funny River.


The dust from the traffic — gawkers and homeowners alike — flies up and mixes with the smoke and ash from the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire casting a eerie, pallid glow over the normally serene out-of-the way community.

The activity hub lies at the north end of a 96,000-acre wildfire where more than 1,000 homes were issued an evacuation advisory Saturday afternoon — a notice that residents should be ready to leave at any time.

It is an environment the community shares with the Bear Creek subdivision — a group of cabins on the shores of the massive Tustumena Lake near the southern end of the wildfire.

Many of the 10 remote access cabins had pumps and hundreds of feet of hose dipped into the lake Friday as owners worked alongside firefighters and hotshot crews to keep the flames at bay.

Erik Huebsch, of Kasilof, stood in the calm, soot-streaked waters of the lake Friday surrounded by a thick white fog of smoke from the wildfire which burned on a ridge less than a mile away.

The clank of his shovel against the rocky shoreline carried several hundred yards down the shoreline as he worked to keep his pump free of debris; pushing water into the 15 sprinklers wetting the historic hunting lodge he and his wife, Catherine Cassidy, turned into a private hideaway.

The history is palpable — from the 80-year-old photos of the lodge hanging in the main cabin, to the painstakingly restored wooden frames and antiques hanging in the doorway — it is clear that a lot of work went into the property.

“It’s my hobby. I come up here and work on it,” Huebsch said. “It’s 20 years ago this month since we bought it.”

Huebsch showed off a portion of the 20 years of antiques and knick-knacks he and his wife have accumulated.

At night, if he takes his boat a little way from shore, he can easily see the flames on the ridges above his cabin burning 150 feet in the air.

But, he is undaunted.

“I’ll stay here until I see it,” Huebsch said, gesturing to the 80-foot trees standing in his yard. “Until it’s in these trees right here, I’ll stay here. These sprinklers are the best defense, really, if I can keep these running, we’ll be fine.

As Huebsch spoke late Friday, the wind shifted from blowing southeast to northwest.

A boon for him, Huebsch said, but a move that pushed the flames closer to Funny River Road and Kasilof residents.

As the winds picked up, a burn ban was issued on the Kenai Peninsula that covers all state, federal, private and municipal lands.

All cooking, warming, signaling and any other type of fire covered under burn permit regulations have been prohibited indefinitely.

But, even as officials moved to keep people from inadvertently causing the fire from spreading, the blaze advanced toward Kasilof and by 5 p.m. on Friday a line nearly five miles long burned actively and close to neighborhood along the Sterling Highway.

Concerned residents of the Cardwell Road neighborhood called Central Emergency Services to report a wall of flames near their homes.

The Sterling Highway became a hub of activity at midnight Saturday as cars streamed north toward Soldotna after Central Emergency Services Fire Chief Chris Mokracek issued an evacuation order for Miles 103-105 of the road.

“The fire was actually on a ridge, approximately a mile away from the Cardwell neighborhood … it was on that ridge, approaching and there were very large flames, there was a pretty significant look to that fire,” said Scott Walden, emergency manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

But, as quickly as it flared up, within a few hours, the fire hit a marshy area and calmed just as the evacuation order was issued.

So, the evacuation was rescinded just shy of two hours after it had been issued.

As firefighters worked to control keep the flames from reaching residents, the wind picked up and fanned the flames — pushing them toward neighborhoods near the Browns Lake area in Funny River.

Clouds of ash and acrid smoke blanketed Royce Street where the deck of a cabin at the end of the road served as fire lookout Saturday evening.

Helicopters dipped water out of the lake, dropping it onto the nearby wall of burning trees as crews watched from the deck, waiting for the blaze to calm enough for them to go in and put out the edge of the fire.

A handful of residents gathered along the shores of Browns Lake, nearly a mile away, watching the activity.

Scott Peters and his son, Emmet Roetman, 4, stood at the shores of the lake.

“I came to check out all the action,” Peters said. “I live right down the street.”

Peters, whose Led Zeppelin shirt glowed in the sepia-tinted light of the setting sun, watched as his son played in the mud along the shoreline. He said he was nervous.

“I know there are lots of firefighters out here now, so we’re in good hands,” he said. “But it’s knocking at our back door.”


Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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