A prescribed burn started by federal foresters June 15 and reclassified as a wildlands fire on Monday night, now is closing in on the Seward Highway and threatening to force the evacuation of area residents.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management "strongly recommended" that residents living between Falls Creek and the Forest Service Work Station in Crown Point -- Seward Highway Mileposts 21 to 25 -- evacuate their homes.
An American Red Cross temporary shelter opened in the Seward High School gym at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The advisory affects about 20 homes.
Borough assembly member Ron Long, who lives in Seward, visited the area Wednesday afternoon and reported that flames were visible descending the slope toward the highway.
"They may close the road," Long said.
Long also noted that if the blaze jumps the highway, it would jeopardize power to Seward, which is carried on a line on the other side of the road. Backup generators are ready, just in case, he said.
Ed Oberts, assistant to Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, said swirling winds are making it difficult to gauge which way the fire will move, but as of 7:30 Wednesday night, the Seward Highway was still open.
"There are no plans to close it this time," Oberts said from the borough Office of Emergency Management. "But that's subject to change if the fire gets closer to the road."
Dick Markley, fire information officer with the incident management team, said the wildfire had consumed a total of 2,400 acres as of late Wednesday afternoon, including the 1,100-acre prescribed burn area. He said creating fire breaks will continue to be the crews' highest priority today and that the highway should remain open and delay free.
"We were successful in protecting the lakeshore structures (Wednesday)," he said. "There are no plans to close the road. We don't foresee that happening."
Temperature inversions and prevailing winds have been working hard against fire crews since the fire took to the wild side late Monday. Since then, temperature inversion changes in the late afternoons have caused the fire to take on renewed energy.
Gary Lehnhausen, fire information officer with the Chugach National Forest, said the fire is still not under control.
"If we thought it would have burned out of control," he said, "We never would have lit it."
The smoke is down to the ground at Crown Point, said Linda Sherrill, owner of Moose Pass Lodge, who drove up from Seward Wednesday. Looking north from the Snow River Bridge the whole side of the mountain is ablaze, she said.
"It is burning down almost to the highway. I can't believe they let it get out of control," she said.
Sherrill said near the east end of Kenai Lake she couldn't see the river from the road due to thick smoke.
"And there are homes there," she said.
The good news would be if the prevailing winds come from the north. But Lehnhausen said Forest Service officials don't know how the winds from Kenai Lake will influence prevailing winds.
Stopping the fire's progress to the east is the goal, Lehnhausen said.
Another problem is temperature inversion. Tuesday afternoon the inversion lifted between 5 and 7 p.m., which spurred the fire into a feeding frenzy. It is like taking the lid off a grease fire, Lehnhausen said. He expected it to happen again Wednesday afternoon and said it would be evident by the huge cloud of smoke it will send into the sky.
A bulldozer line is now in place around Trail River Campground, which was evacuated Tuesday morning. Another fire line is being laid about a half mile north of Trail River, Lehnhausen said.
Close to 200 firefighters are on the scene, including a 30-person crew from Boise, Idaho, which took command of the fire Wednesday morning. Other firefighting crews from the Lower 48 also have been on the scene. Four Alaska emergency firefighter crews are assigned and three more Hotshot crews from the Lower 48 have been ordered.
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