Brenda Cameron and her son Marshal watch as a tanker prepares to drop a load of retardant on a fire behind her Kasilof home. The fire started when a controlled burn got away from Cameron on Monday afternoon.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
A homeowner burning brush accidentally ignited a blaze that burned at least 12 acres in Kasilof on Monday afternoon.
The fire started when a controlled burn at Brenda Cameron’s residence at Mile 5.4 North Cohoe Loop Road went wild.
“I feel so bad. I just hope everybody’s OK and no buildings catch on fire,” Cameron said while using a garden hose to spray water on still-smoking ground.
“I had it under control. Something in the pile just exploded. It was wet all around the burn.”
Cameron was burning several small piles of brush surrounding the house where she has lived with her son for three years to finish a defensible-space project she started last year.
“I had a burn permit, I called it in, I had it wet and I was almost done. I was going to put it out. Then I heard this ‘pop’ and it went sky high.”
State Forestry Fire Prevention Officer Sharon Roesch interviews Brenda Cameron as her neighbor Patrick Quiner sprays hot spots with a garden hose Monday afternoon. "I heard this pop and (the fire) went sky high," Cameron said.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“I’ve never been so scared in all my life,” she said. “I dialed 911 and then I said, ‘Oh my god.’”
The blaze quickly outstripped Cameron’s ability to fight it, and soon became an uncontrolled forest fire. As of Monday night it was burning in a sparsely populated area between Hermansen Drive, Cohoe Loop and Le Doux Road. A small shed was reported burned, but officials said no structures had been lost as of Monday evening.
However, Central Emergency Services officials said at least five homes were being protected with crews on the ground, and approximately a dozen homes in the area were immediately threatened.
Ted Eller and his children Rosalie, Connor and Lauden turn to look at the fire scene while walking down a closed portion of North Cohoe Loop on Monday afternoon.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Alaska Division of Forestry Fire Prevention Officer Sharon Roesch said the fire was one of four wildland fires that popped up on the central peninsula Monday. It was reported at approximately 4:20 p.m. Forestry crews were already nearby getting a 1.5-acre blaze at Mile 106 of the Sterling Highway under control when the call for the second, larger Kasilof fire came in. Resources were diverted to the second fire by Forestry and CES.
“Helicopters were a fairly short distance away,” Roesch said.
A firefighter parachutes into a remote area of woods during work to prevent the fire from spreading.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In addition to two helicopters, a tanker aircraft was brought in to fight the blaze and two more were requested from the Matanuska-Susitna area. A crew of smoke jumpers was dropped near the fire to add additional resources to ground crews.
As of Monday evening, approximately 20 personnel from CES and 30 from Forestry were working to contain the blaze. CES Incident Commander Gordon Orth said there were three tankers, an engine, two brush trucks and four command vehicles from CES on the scene. An engine from the Kenai Fire Department also responded.
Although the fire was not ruled under control Monday evening, officials said that they were confident it would not spread past the confines of three roads Hermansen, Cohoe and Le Doux and the Kasilof River to the south.
“We’re really not worried about it getting out of hand at this point,” said CES Captain Chris Mokracek.
Mokracek said aircraft being dispatched quickly to the area was a significant advantage in quelling the spread of the blaze.
“They got here pretty quick,” he said.
Cooler evening temperatures also worked to firefighters’ advantage as Monday wore on. Firefighters were expected to remain on the scene at least until midnight. Efforts will resume at 6 a.m., according to Kathy Dawson, a Forestry public information officer. But that doesn’t mean all danger is passed.
“If it heats up tomorrow, it could flare back up,” Dawson said.
Dry conditions are forecast for the rest of this week, with sun and temperatures reaching into the 60s.
With an abundance of beetle-killed trees in the area, as well as recent dry conditions, Mokracek said emergency personnel hit the fire hard.
“We went big, yeah,” Mokracek said.
A plume of smoke from the fire could be seen across the central peninsula Monday afternoon as the fire erupted. Residents from nearby homes watched as the sky filled with airplanes, helicopters and smoke jumpers.
Ted Eller, who lives with his family on a commune in the area, anxiously watched the fire’s progress from Cohoe Loop. Along with his three children, Lauden, 15, Connor, 11, and Roaslie, 2, Eller said he was keeping an eye on the blaze for the approximately 50 other members of the community.
“We’ve got 50 people ready to head for the beach,” Eller said. “I just keep going back and forth (to relay information).”
With his children intently watching the planes buzzing the treetops around them, Eller said he hopes the experience of seeing a wildfire close up will be a positive one for his kids.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “I hope.”
In addition to firefighting personnel, volunteers from the American Red Cross responded to the blaze, setting up a temporary shelter at Tustumena Elementary School for potentially displaced residents. As of Monday evening, Annette Hakkinen said no families had taken advantage of the shelter.
“The last thing I think people want to do is leave their homes,” she said.
Still, the fire gave Hakkinen and her volunteers a good opportunity to prepare for future disaster relief situations.
“This will turn into sort of a drill for us,” she said.
Hakkinen said close to a dozen local volunteers Victoria Whitney, Harriet Seibert, Helen Therrault, Diana Lofstedt, Frank Keener, Ed and Sharon Sleater, Barbara Gunsolus, Cindy Newby and Rick DeMello all were on the scene within an hour setting up the shelter at Tustumena Elementary.
Sharon Roesch said the fire is a good reminder of the dangers of fire, especially as the weather turns warm and dry.
“That grass goes so fast,” she said.
Roesch said that the Kasilof fire simply became too much for homeowner Brenda Cameron to get a handle on.
“She ran over to try and stop it, had a phone in her hand, but it just got to be too much,” she said.
Roesch said that Cameron could be in line for a misdemeanor criminal charge, and also likely will be liable for costs incurred by agencies fighting the blaze. She didn’t have an estimate for what this particular fire might cost, but said it likely will run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
In addition to the two Kasilof-area fires, Roesch said crews also responded to small fires near Nikiski and Anchor Point on Monday.
Burn permits were suspended as of today, meaning brush fires are prohibited. Warming and cooking fires are still allowed, but Roesch said they must have a mineral fire break.
“Dirt, sand or gravel is the key,” she said.
The city of Kenai also has enacted a burn ban.
Roesch cautioned people to be extra cautious with fire as summer begins to dry out the Kenai Peninsula’s wildland fuel supplies especially with the Memorial Day holiday coming up.
Clarion reporter Jenny Neyman contributed to this report.
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