4,000 acres and growing

Dry conditions fan flames in Caribou Hills

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2007


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  A column of smoke rises behind Matt Jones, a firefighter with the Pioneer Peak Type I Crew, as he throws a packet of fire hose while working Wednesday afternoon to secure a flank of the Caribou Hills forest fire burning east of Ninilchik. Photo by M. Scott Moon

A column of smoke rises behind Matt Jones, a firefighter with the Pioneer Peak Type I Crew, as he throws a packet of fire hose while working Wednesday afternoon to secure a flank of the Caribou Hills forest fire burning east of Ninilchik.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Sparks from a grinder ignited a fire that has burned grass, black spruce and spruce bark beetle-killed spruce in the Caribou Hills. The blaze had burned 4,000 acres as of Wednesday evening and is growing — thanks to high temperatures and low humidity.

“We’re expecting temperatures between 70 and 79, and relative humidity between 14 and 20” percent, said Kris Eriksen, fire information officer for the Division of Forestry.

A public meeting will be held at 7 tonight at Ninilchik School to address the danger to cabins and other structures threatened by the Caribou Hills blaze.

The fire, which is currently burning north and south of the Deep Creek drainage area near Deep Creek Dome, burned 500 acres Tuesday and grew to more than 1,000 acres Wednesday morning, Eriksen said. Firefighters from all over the state are working to save structures, as well as the Homer Electric Association power line, which also caught fire.


Fire burns through spruce trees bordering the bank of main stem of the Anchor River. Crews were working aggressively on the ground and in the air to fight the fast-moving blaze.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“The line is presumed burned,” Eriksen said. “When retardant is dropped in the area, we’ll fly HEA officials in there.”

Joe Gallagher, HEA spokesperson, said the utility will shut off power to that transmission line from the Bradley Lake hydroelectric project to Soldotna. Power will be rerouted to make up for the loss.


Pioneer Peak Type I firefighters Justin Hansen and Alvin Fernandez decide on which trees to fell while reinforcing a fire line on the Caribou Hills forest fire.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“We will remain in that situation with the transmission line,” Gallagher said. “We feel that once the fire runs its course, we will go through and take a look at the line and assess the damage.”

Eriksen said firefighters from Anchorage and Mat-Su have responded in addition to local crews. Other fire crews from Nikolai and Tanacross relieved first-responders Wednesday afternoon. Three helicopters and a flame retardant tanker currently are working in the area as well.

The Department of Fish and Game expressed concern over the impact the flame retardant would have on the fish in Deep Creek. Dennis Ricker, the Division of Forestry’s coastal region aviation manager, said the retardant is harmful to fish, but his crew is under instructions not to drop it within 300 feet of a slow moving water body.

“The main component of fire retardant is agricultural fertilizer,” he said. “It’s just like a washing machine. (You) don’t want to put a lot of phosphate in the water system, (or you’ll get) an increase of algae in the water, which is not great for fish.”

Because fertilizer is in the retardant, not only will it put a damper on the fire, but it will cause grass and trees to grow in its place, Ricker said.

“(That’s) just one of the secondary properties of that material,” he said. “It stops fires from burning.”

Les Crane of Crane and Associates Realty in Soldotna owns a cabin in the Caribou Hills and sells land parcels up there, as well. While his cabin isn’t threatened, he said wildfire is something folks up there dread every year.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” he said.

He said the spruce bark beetle infestation, as well as an increase in people in the area, is the main concern for those who own Caribou Hills property.

“Having a campfire or something get loose and create a forest fire is our main concern,” Crane said.

Several of his friends own cabins in the area, but are not threatened by the fire right now, either.

“The reports we’ve been hearing is it’s significantly to the south,” he said.

Eriksen said grass, black spruce and spruce bark beetle kill fueled the blaze.

Because of dry conditions, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge officials put a prescribed burn, scheduled for today, on hold. Refuge Manager Robin West said the refuge will continue to prepare for the burn but will wait until the moisture content in the soil and plants improve.

“It seems unlikely that Thursday will have acceptable conditions for us,” West said.

The refuge planned to burn 431 acres of laid down and standing black spruce in the Lily Lake area near Sterling.

According to a press release issued by the Division of Forestry, 14 new fires have flared up in the state since Tuesday and the Division of Forestry has suspended burn permits on the Kenai Peninsula until further notice. Another fire in the Bear Creek area near Seward was contained at two-tenths of an acre Wednesday.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.

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