Ezra Gibson of the Denali Hot Shots firefighting squad hoses down the deck at Caribou Hills Adventures on Oil Well Road during efforts to protect the structure from wildfire on Friday afternoon.
Photos by M. Scott Moon
Tim Osmar raced from an artesian pool to his cabins outside Ninilchik with five-gallon buckets of water in a desperate bid to keep the flames at bay when he crashed his four-wheeler. Battling the blaze since 11 p.m. Thursday night, he shattered his ankle and broke his leg and had to wait until 4 p.m. Friday when his parents were able to get him out of there.
“It was too big and overwhelming,” said Dean Osmar, Tim Osmar’s father. “He worked all night pumping water with a gas pump and hauling (it) to other houses.”
Paul Slenkamp, a public information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry, uses a map at the Ninilchik School to help Bill and Rose Sirois determine how close the fire came to their recreational cabin in the Caribou Hills.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Although they were under orders to evacuate, Tim and Dean Osmar stayed with their cabins, battling flames. Despite his injuries, Tim Osmar, winner of the 2001 Yukon Quest, saved his main cabin.
“It was scorching hot especially when the dried spruce trees would flare up,” Dean Osmar said, adding that many people stayed behind to save their cabins despite the evacuation orders. “Some of them felt they didn’t have any choice but to try and stay and fight it,” he said.
The Caribou Hills fire devoured approximately 30 residences and 40 outbuildings and grew to 50,000 acres by Saturday morning despite firefighters’ efforts to stop it. Cheryl Larsen, fire information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, said firefighters are trying to preventing the fire from spreading west along Deep Creek, as well as keeping standing structures from going up in flames.
Gusty winds helped the fire grow considerably on Friday.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“A concern is on the structures that are standing and did not get burned,” Larsen said, adding that more resources were called in. “(We’re) increasing new cabin protection beyond the established perimeter of the fire. We’re putting in dozer lines and cooling down blackened areas around standing cabins.”
Larsen said Oil Well Road is closed to residents eager to get back to their cabins.
“It’s too hazardous to allow people in there at this time,” she said, adding with the heat still radiating from charred areas, the road probably won’t be opened in the immediate future. “It’s really beneficial to the fire personnel to have access in there without having to work around the public, and there’s still potential for flare-ups.”
As of Saturday morning the state of Alaska was hoping for federal funds from FEMA, but did not get it verified, said Mary Huels at the Incident Command Post in Ninilchik.
Up Oil Well Road, red and yellow Canadian “Duck” planes soared over the staging area Friday, while a blue Huey helicopter with bucket in tow landed in a clearing. Type two fire crews from Tanacross, Nikolai and Nondalton smoked cigarettes, drank water and chatted while waiting to mobilize.
Crew Chief Earl Balluta and his crew from Nondalton came to Caribou Hills on Wednesday and was doing cabin work when the fire jumped Deep Creek Thursday.
“We were stuck between two channels of fire,” he said, “one on the east side and one on the west side doing cabin protection after it jumped the creek.”
After battling fires in Alaska, the Lower 48 and Canada since 1973, Balluta has lost count of how many wildfires he’s fought, but loves the thrill of it.
“I’ve had a few bad ones, but I can’t put a category number on them,” he said.
James Harbison, a type two fighter with the Tanacross crew, said he started fighting the fire at 8 a.m. Thursday and quit for the day at 2 a.m. Friday. “We’re guaranteed 16 hours a day on uncontrolled fires,” he said, adding that he estimates the fire is burning at 40 acres an hour. “The fuel’s so hot, it’s still creeping forward cause everything’s so dry.”
Real estate agent Michelle Holley, who sells Caribou Hills property for Coastal Realty in Anchor Point, stood at the Oil Well Road closure with camera in hand. Watching and photographing the fire five minutes after it started, she said she doesn’t think the flame retardant dropped by DC-6 planes is doing a good job.
“(The fire is) out of control,” she said. “At what point is it going to move this way?”
Although she realizes that Forestry has its hands full, Holley said the agency only gave a five minute briefing at Thursday’s public meeting at the Ninilchik School before asking for questions.
“The communication is poor at best,” she said. “There’s no accurate info, it’s not up to the minute.”
With only wet handkerchiefs and neck gaiters protecting their lungs and eyes, Osmar and his family battled the flames with shovels and rakes and buckets of water. Although Osmar is confident his main cabin still stands, he and Tim made a narrow escape Friday before firefighters showed up.
“We figured as a last resort we’d jump down in the pool of water,” he said, adding that Tim’s well was 20 by 30 feet big and five feet deep. “If everything started burning we’d probably be down there.”
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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