Airplanes dropping fire retardant have slowed the Mystery Hills Fire's southerly movement toward the Sterling Highway from the western edge of the Kenai Mountains. However, state Division of Forestry officials urged drivers to use caution near Milepost 62 due to firefighting equipment entering and exiting the highway and sightseers stopping to view the smoke.
"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 Skyline Trail, which climbs the Mystery Hills from Mile 61 Sterling Highway. West said the Fuller Lakes Trail, several miles farther from the fire, is not immediately threatened and remains open.
Lightning strikes were the apparent source of the Mystery Hills and Thurman fires, which Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters spotted late Thursday afternoon. The Mystery Hills fire, about two miles north of Upper Jean Lake, grew to nearly 100 acres in 45 minutes, said Kris Eriksen, fire information officer for Forestry in Soldotna. By Saturday morning, it had burned an estimated 1,300 acres.
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 spreading south, toward the Sterling Highway, powerlines and popular recreation areas such as the Hidden Lake campground. If it continues 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.
On Saturday, five 20-person hand crews, one 16-person hand crew and a bulldozer were establishing containment lines and safety zones. The ORCA Incident Management Team from Oregon and California was managing the firefighting effort. The team consists of personnel from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Department of Forestry and Ashland Rural Fire District. Three elite Hotshot fire crews arrived Friday afternoon from Boise, Idaho, joining two other Hotshot crews and a fire crew from Kaltag.
According to Eriksen, firefighters used bulldozers and hand tools to build 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 and planned 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.
"The Alaska State Forestry and the Incident Management Team would like to remind everyone that there is a burn ban in effect on the peninsula," read a Forestry press release issued Saturday.
"No fireworks are allowed on the Kenai Peninsula. It is against the law. Fire conditions are extreme."
Clarion reporter McKibben Jackinsky contributed to this story.
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