Kenai Lake firefighters battle wind-whipped blaze

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Kenai Lake Fire continued to burn out of control Thursday, whipped up by dry, windy conditions that hindered efforts to contain it.

The blaze, which began as a prescribed burn, had consumed more than 2,700 acres north of Seward. Late afternoon winds were gusting at 15 mph but had shifted, coming out of the northeast. Fire officials were hoping the shift would drive the fire away from Seward Highway and toward Kenai Lake, said Susan Rutherford, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service.

The blaze had come within a half from the highway near the Trail River Campground and Lawing, Rutherford said. With flames closer to homes, fire officials put evacuation plans in place for residents of Moose Pass, Crown Point and Lawing. Also, open fires were banned from state, federal and private properties in the Kenai Peninsula.

It's far from over,'' Rutherford said. She said the fire was 30 percent contained and that fire managers expect it to be fully contained by Sunday. About 235 firefighters were deployed to the site.

The prescribed burn drew the ire of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to ask who authorized the June 15 fire. Stevens also wanted to know why a 20-member hotshot crew was released Monday before all the embers were out. That night, winds fanned the embers into flames, turning the controlled blaze into a wildfire that Stevens said could cause millions of dollars in damage.

Stevens was especially critical of Fire Service officials who told the Anchorage Daily News that they saw nothing done wrong, that conditions seemed perfect for torching the area thick with flammable beetle-killed spruce.

''I don't accept these answers since it has been clear since at least 1998 that the Kenai Peninsula was a fire danger because of the beetle kill,'' Stevens wrote. In his letter, Stevens said the fire was threatening at least 60 homes in the peninsula.

Rutherford said the official count was 15 homes and four other structures. She said Alaska Interagency Coordination Center released the hotshot crew from the Kenai Lake burn because weather conditions seemed good and the crew was needed at the much larger Fish Creek wildfire in the Tanana Flats southwest of Fairbanks.

Meanwhile, that Interior fire had grown to more than 80,000 acres Thursday. Cooler temperatures and relatively high humidity overnight initially helped to slow the blaze, as well as the 104,000-acre Survey Line fire on Fort Wainwright 15 miles southwest. But Andy Williams, spokesman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, said conditions were getting warmer and drier.

Winds in the area were also picking up, particularly around the Fish Creek fire, which had grown by nearly 7,000 acres since Wednesday. Pete Buist of the state forestry division said 12-mph winds were gusting at 15 mph.

''The weather has the potential to bring extreme fire behavior,'' Buist said.

Also on Thursday, four new fires were reported in Alaska, bringing the total to 27 burning around the state, Williams said. So far this year, 282 fires statewide have burned nearly 185,000 acres, he said.

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