Strong winds wreaked havoc on the Kenai Peninsula on Wednesday, spreading a wild fire outside Anchor Point, downing power lines and interrupting electricity service.
According to the National Weather Service, winds ranging from 30 to 60 mph blew throughout Southcentral and Southeast Alaska on Wednesday. In Kenai, fire department personnel at the Kenai Municipal Airport reported winds averaging at about 46 mph, with at least one gust of up to 51 mph.
The weather service expected the winds to continue today and Friday, tapering off Friday night.
Locally, the winds' worst effects were on the south end of the peninsula, where a grass fire erupted mid-day Wednesday north of Cottonfield Avenue near Anchor Point. Driven by the winds, the fire had grown to between 20 and 30 acres by 5 p.m.
Some 30 firefighters from the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Service Area, the Homer Volunteer Fire Department, the Ninilchik Fire Department and the State Division of Forestry were engaged in the attempt to contain the blaze and keep it from spreading, said forestry spokesperson Sharon Roesch.
"The fire is about 10 to 20 percent contained," Roesch said at about 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after getting the latest update from the incident commander. "It is still north of Cottonfield."
At that time, Cottonfield Avenue was still open, but motorists were being asked to avoid using it if possible.
Two elderly residents were evacuated from a home north of the fire at about 4:15 p.m., Roesch said.
Annette Hakkinen of the American Red Cross said one family was evacuated by helicopter and troopers were evacuating others to the Anchor River Inn. The Red Cross will house some families at the inn and will set up a shelter for others potentially affected by the fire.
Although the fire was being buffeted by strong north winds, it was nevertheless crawling toward the north as it consumed extremely dry grass, Roesch said.
"The fire was backing into the wind," she said, adding that it was burning mostly grass, but some spruce was involved.
As of 6:40 p.m., the division had reports that two structures had been burned, but it was not known if those were homes or outbuildings.
Roesch said the division would be in contact with the weather service to stay updated on wind speed and direction as day turned into night.
The division also issued a red flag warning for fire danger early Wednesday, advising residents to refrain from all outdoor burning until further notice. Individuals with burned brush or debris piles were urged to check the piles for burning embers that may have surfaced and to turn the pits over and soak them with water to make sure all fires are out.
The red flag warning extended not only through the Kenai Peninsula, but also to Anchorage, Palmer, Big Lake and Talkeetna.
On the central peninsula, Nikiski Fire Chief Dan Gregory also expressed concern about fires spreading in the gusty conditions.
"With winds the way they are and dryness the way it is, we're pretty worried about starting brush fires," he said.
He echoed the Forestry Division's warning about burning, saying both open and barrel burns were prohibited until further notice.
He also said residents should use extra care with wood stoves and fireplaces, which are likely to see increased use as the winds knock out power.
The Nikiski Fire Department spent much of Wednesday responding to downed power lines throughout the area, Gregory said.
Joe Gallagher, spokesperson for Homer Electric Association, said power outages and downed lines were common throughout the day Wednesday.
The first outage occurred around 11:40 a.m. in the Mackey Lake Road area near Soldotna. HEA crews responded and had power restored by about 12:45 p.m., Gallagher said.
"Then, after that, it's been pretty steady, scattered outages everywhere," he said.
One of the larger outages hit the Robinson Loop area near Sterling, while another knocked out power on Holt-Lamplight Road in Nikiski. An outage also hit downtown Kenai in the afternoon, shutting off power to area businesses and turning off traffic lights.
All those outages were caused by trees hitting power lines, Gallagher said. In most cases, the contact simply disrupted power, though he added that a few trees were sparked with fire from the power lines.
Also Wednesday, a HEA transmission line problem near Bradley Lake knocked out power to about 1,100 residents in the Fritz Creek area near Homer, Gallagher said. Crews also were dealing with that outage, but were unsure what had caused the problem. Gallagher said it likely was wind-related.
He said crews planned to work well past 5 p.m. Wednesday to get all power restored, but he expected the possibility of more outages as winds continue throughout the week.
"We're doing the best we can," he said.
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