Smoke didn't hang in the air above the Kenai Lake Fire. It was the air.
It blurred the scenery, smudging the silhouettes of trees in the thick forest. It blotted out the sun of an otherwise cloudless day. It soaked into the bright yellow shirts of firefighters. It was everywhere.
But thanks to the effort of nearly 340 individuals assigned to the fire, there was more smoke than fire.
Started as a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service on June 15, the blaze reared up on Monday, and as of Saturday afternoon had claimed a total of 2,961 acres between the shores of Kenai Lake and the communities of Moose Pass, Crown Point and Lawing.
"Firefighters will continue construction of a fire line along the fire's eastern perimeter," said Forest Service Information Officer Nancy Stinson, of plans for Saturday. "Helicopter water drops increased (Friday) with the arrival of additional helicopters. Two additional helicopters have been ordered for today."
While coordination of the multi-agency effort is focused at the Forest Service's Kenai Lake Work Center, the actual war was being waged along the fire's perimeters, where the forest is thick and the incline steep. Water from Kenai Lake was pumped through hoses that ran up a fire trail and disappeared into the smoky haze.
Teams of Hotshots, firefighters from in and out of Alaska, worked along the fire trail. They carried heavy packs, containing the tools of their trade -- chain saws, axes and shovels, emergency shelters, should they become trapped by flames, and water and snacks to replenish their energy during long, 16-hour shifts.
Sean Fogarty, with the Rogue River Hotshots of Prospect, Ore., pulled a sling psychrometer from his pack to measure the humidity and temperature. Fogarty compared his readings with Rick Smeriglio, a Forest Service wildlife technician from Moose Pass. Their humidity results varied, one measuring 39 percent and the other at 47 percent, but both were well within a safe range.
"If we got 30 percent, that would be a significant trigger," Smeriglio said of the increased risk of fire with a decrease in humidity. "In Alaska, 20 percent is considered explosive."
Smeriglio said the Kenai Lake Fire is atypical for Alaska.
"It's on a road system," he said. "And the fire behaves differently on steep terrain with bug-killed trees. That makes a big difference."
The sound of a Sikorski 6-110 helicopter's engines and rotors blanketed out the whine of chain saws, the chatter of firefighters and the occasional song of birds. Under the chopper's belly hung a 500-gallon bucket of lake water to be dumped on fire hot spots.
The ensuing mist mixed with the sweat on the Hotshots' faces, turning the soot and dirt to mud that lined the creases of their faces. Without stopping, the chopper dumped the water and returned to the lake for a refill.
At the head of the fire line, Jim Gladish, of Anchor Point, cut trees and stacked them to one side with a "feller buncher."
"I got a call from Gates Construction that I should head to the fire," said Gladish. Looking around at the sharp incline he had already worked through, he added, "This has been a challenge."
Approaching from the other end of the fire line on a matching piece of equipment was Jess McKellar, of Ninilchik. The plan was for the two to meet. However, the terrain eventually proved too challenging for the equipment, and the 18-member Chena Hotshot team began the task of manually clearing brush to link the two trails.
"They're one of the two top teams in Alaska," said Smeriglio, referring to the reputation Chena and Midnight Sun Hotshots, both with Alaska Fire Services, have earned for their hard work.
"This is grubby, blue-collar work," Smeriglio said. "But (Hotshots) take pride in what they do, and it shows."
Updates on the fire can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/seward/fire or by contacting the U.S. Forest Service Kenai Lake Work Center at 907-288-3210.
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