Fire crews aim to protect Sterling Highway

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2001

Airplanes dropping fire retardants at midday Friday seemed to be keeping a 700-acre wildfire near the western edge of the Kenai Mountains from reaching the Sterling Highway.

"It's been moving primarily toward Mystery Creek Road. That's due west," Robin West, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said a little before noon Friday. "The south is holding pretty well, so there's no threat to the highway."

Refuge officials have closed the Skyline Trail, which climbs the Mystery Hills from Mile 61 Sterling Highway. A wind shift could quickly push the Mystery Hills fire, less than three miles to the east, across the trail. West said the Fuller Lakes Trail, several miles farther from the fire, is not immediately threatened.

Lightning strikes were the apparent source of the Mystery Hills and Thurman fires, which Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters spotted Thursday at about 6 p.m. The Mystery Hills fire, about two miles north of Upper Jean Lake, grew from a puff of smoke to nearly 100 acres in 45 minutes, said Kris Eriksen, fire information officer for Forestry in Soldotna. Thursday evening, it grew rapidly in all directions through beetle-killed white spruce forest. It burned an estimated 300 acres Thursday, 500 acres by Friday noon and 700 acres by Friday at 3 p.m. West said computer models suggest it could grow to 3,000 acres by Saturday.

The Thurman fire grew more slowly, burning in black spruce on the western slope of a 2,100-foot peak two miles southwest of the mouth of Thurman Creek. By Friday morning, it had burned just 6 acres.

The Division of Forestry is the lead agency for fighting fires on the western Kenai Peninsula. Eriksen said firefighters hope to stop the Mystery Hills fire north of the Sterling Highway, east of Mystery Creek Road and southeast of the buried Enstar natural gas pipeline that arcs from Sterling to Chickaloon Bay and Anchorage.

The main goal is to keep the fire from running south, where it could threaten the Sterling Highway, powerlines beside it and popular recreation areas such as the Hidden Lake campground. Eriksen said four hours of retardant drops Friday afternoon had stopped the fire's southward progress, but winds still were expanding it to the west. Forecasters predicted winds later Friday that could drive it back to the east, she said.

"We're just hoping it doesn't do what it did yesterday and hook to the south," she said.

If the Mystery Hills fire keeps running west, firefighters could fight it from the cleared pipeline corridor, she said. If it runs north, they may let it run to an old burn where the pipeline meets the Chickaloon River.

"That's an area where it would slow and they could attack it directly," she said. "If it burns to the east, they'll probably let it burn, because that runs above the treeline."

Thursday evening, Forestry dispatched two engines, two helicopters and tanker planes from Kenai and Palmer to fight the fires. The air tankers dropped four loads of fire retardant and the helicopters dropped numerous buckets of water, Eriksen said. Ground crews staged nearby, but it was too dangerous to send them to the Mystery Hills fire.

"To get in was a couple of miles hiking over downed beetle-killed trees up very steep slopes," she said.

If the fire took a run, there would be no way for firefighters to escape.

Winds were erratic Thursday beneath the thunderhead that sparked the fires. The Mystery Hills fire ran northwest, then turned south. By Friday, it was running west.

Despite Thursday's aerial attack, it grew on all sides until evening, when winds died down, she said. Air crews did not return until 11:30 p.m. It was clear that the aerial attack alone would not stop the Mystery Hills fire, she said.

Fire managers strategized until 2 a.m. They ordered an incident management team and three elite "Hotshot" fire crews, which arrived Friday afternoon from Boise, Idaho. Two Hotshot crews and a fire crew from Kaltag already were present Friday morning.

Forestry was to brief the Boise fire managers Friday afternoon, and let them take over management early Saturday morning. The fires should be most active between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., when winds usually are strongest, Eriksen said. By Saturday morning, 100 Hotshots, 16 firefighters and the Boise management team should be fighting them.

Meanwhile, Eriksen said, firefighters using bulldozers and hand tools began work Friday afternoon on a fire line from Mystery Hills Road through the gravel pit near Mile 63 Sterling Highway, Dogteam Lake, Upper Jean Lake and the alpine tundra near the top of the 2,857-foot peak just west of the saddle near the top of the Skyline Trail. They opened a staging area at the gravel pit. They planned to start work Saturday to clear safe zones along Mystery Creek Road to which they can escape if the fire makes a run when they try to fight it.

West said that once the fire line is built and the winds are right, firefighters could burn the woods between the line and the fire. Eriksen said that is a possibility, but given dry weather and the recent escape of the U.S. Forest Service controlled burn by Kenai Lake, state crews will be extremely cautious.

Forestry crews surveyed the Thurman fire from the air Friday. West said it lacks the fuel to grow rapidly.

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