Ninilchik residents filled the bleachers and lined the walls of Ninilchik School gym Thursday night, eager for an update on the Caribou Lake Fire. Where was the fire at that moment? Which direction was it moving? What could the public do to help?
It was soon clear that sharing information isn’t easy when the information keeps changing.
“We do have changes happening right now. That’s why we’re late starting,” Kris Eriksen, public information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, told the crowd. While everyone waited, Eriksen assured the crowd of the commitment of firefighters and others involved in battling the fire.
“This team is from Alaska. ... We have as much concern about this as you do.”
The update, as it turned out, wasn’t good.
For starters, Dave Jandt and Rob Allen, incident commanders on the response team, announced that the fire had grown to 12,000 acres, crossed the north fork of Deep Creek and was progressing in a northwesterly direction. That movement raised specific concern about residents in the Ninilchik 40 subdivision, an area of approximately 300 structures that include cabins and year-round homes.
“We are evacuating folks out of the area,” said Allen, who was one of the original eight jumpers into the area Tuesday evening.
In addition to hot, dry air, spruce bark beetle-killed spruce trees and a thick ground cover of dry grass are enabling the fire to spread rapidly.
“Our biggest problem is that the grass is so dry,” Jandt said. “We put retardant on it, but it’s not getting deep enough in the grass and it (the fire) pops up on other sides. ... We’re having a really hard time. ... We’re going after it the best we can.”
Also of concern is the continued availability of resources due to the number of fires burning across the state. However, Jandt stressed that the Caribou Lake Fire would not lose any of the resources currently being used.
“They will not take resources from here,” he said.
It was estimated that more firefighters would be on the scene by Friday morning, bringing the total to 200.
Most wildland fire activity decreases during the night, but the Caribou Lake Fire is proving to be an exception.
“It’s not doing any of the normal stuff,” Jandt said. “It’s been a struggle to get where we are right now.”
During a question-and-answer session, weather was addressed, but Jandt made it clear that even if it rained, it would take “significant measurements to do any good.”
“What can we do? Make food? Stay off the road? Make food?” asked Lori Garrison of Ninilchik. Her questions were supported by the applause of many in the room.
“Pack up and get out of the area,” Jandt said.
Underscoring Jandt’s response, a woman in the audience announced she had just received a message on her cell phone that Oil Well Road was closed at the point where the pavement ends, about 10 miles out from the intersection with the Sterling Highway. No one was being allowed beyond that point due to danger from the fire.
Another information meeting will be held at Ninilchik School at 7 p.m. Friday.
McKibben Jackinsky is a reporter for the Homer News.
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