The Shepherd family watches from the northwest shore of Skilak Lake as smoke from the King County Creek fire towers overhead Wednesday afternoon. Sterling residents kept a nervous eye on the sky as firefighters battled the blaze from the air throughout the day.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai Peninsula residents watched and hoped for the best Wednesday as a huge column of smoke from a growing wildfire near Skilak Lake rose to more than 8,000 feet above the peninsula. Meanwhile, fire managers began an aerial assault on the blaze, hoping to trap the flames between the lake and nearby rivers.
When state forestry officers flew over the fire early Wednesday, they mapped it as having burned 7,200 acres of mostly wilderness spruce trees and low-bog vegetation.
A Canadair CL215 1A10 scoops water from the surface of Skilak Lake Wednesday evening to drop on the King County Creek fire burning near the northwest shore of the lake. The plane is able to reload from the surface of a lake during a touch-and-go landing.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Fire managers were working Wednesday evening to burn a fire line between the fire and the central peninsula. These aerial burning operations were causing heavy smoke that residents saw. According to fire information officer Kevin Koechlein, forestry had burned an area from Skilak Lake west to Hunter Lake and were regrouping for a march south toward the Killey River.
Forestry worker Dianna Prior works on a sign for firefighters and the public in front of Sterling Elementary School Wednesday night. The facility is serving as the incident command center for the King County Creek fire.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"If the weather holds, the operations guys are going to start making the turn to head south," Koechlein said Wednesday evening.
No personnel were yet fighting the fire from the ground Wednesday, but at a standing-room-only public meeting Wednesday evening held at refuge headquarters, officials said 10 crews are on their way, with one 16-person crew expected to be on the ground by this morning.
Wildfire Prevention Officer Sharon Roesch said the fire is basically circular in shape and in an area between the Killey and the southwest corner of Skilak Lake. It is located within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
In addition to burning a fire break, managers Wednesday also attacked the fire by dropping water from three air tankers.
As a safety measure, forestry officials closed the lower Skilak Lake boat ramp Wednesday afternoon and plan to keep it closed while air operations continue.
Shortly before the closure, onlookers gathered on the north shore of Skilak Lake to watch the fire.
"It looks like a hippopotamus," said toddler Tristan Torkelson, watching with his parents as smoke rose up from the opposite side of the lake.
Tristan's dad, Tyren, said he was amazed at the visible flames and billowing cloud.
"You never know what you're looking at. You could be seeing history," he said.
Other people gathered at the lake had more than a curious interest in the blaze. Sisters Janice and Cheryl West of Sterling said they have watched the fire anxiously since Monday, knowing that if the fire moves to the northwest, their homes could be in danger.
"I've been keeping a close watch on it," Janice West said, watching as heavy tanker aircraft circled the normally peaceful Skilak surface.
She said the fire has grown remarkably since she first began watching it.
"It's huge compared to what it was," she said.
As her sister talked, Cheryl West watched as a huge billow of smoke rose up from the fire.
"It's a monster of a fire," she said.
Although worried, the Wests said they're optimistic about the chances crews will be able to keep the fire a safe distance from their homes.
"I'm sure these guys will do a good job," Janice said, pointing to fire workers loading into a boat headed for the fiery side of Skilak.
At the meeting Wednesday, Alaska Fire Service Incident Commander Tony Doty said the fire currently is not threatening any homes or structures.
"There is no current threat to residences," Doty said.
He added, however, that conditions can change at any time.
Nearly 90 lightning strikes that began moving through the peninsula Tuesday evening were recorded and sparked a number of smaller fires, said fire information officer Kris Eriksen.
The fire as well as efforts to contain it will cause smoky conditions across the peninsula through the weekend or longer.
The National Weather Service is calling for some possible rain showers into the weekend, although more thunder storms which could complicate fire suppression efforts are also a possibility.
Forestry officials also have requested a temporary no-fly zone be established near the fire area to keep the skies clear for fire-fighting aircraft.
Updates on the fire can be heard by calling 714-2422.
Roesch said fire managers are not looking forward to the upcoming July Fourth holiday.
''The big Fourth of July weekend is coming up and we're going into it dry,'' she said.
Clarion reporter Mark Quiner and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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