Fire's fate up in the air

Equipment problems delay announcement of containment

Posted: Monday, July 02, 2001

Fire officials expected to have the Kenai Lake Fire contained by 6 p.m. Sunday night, however mechanical problems with the heavy helicopter has delayed that announcement. A spokes person at the fire information office said containment of the fire now depends on the weather and air support.

"The weather is cooperating and we've made great progress on the eastern line," said U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Dick Markley early Sunday. "We're working today to strengthen and improve our position."

Containing the fire means firefighters have a secure line around it and do not expect it to jump that line, even if it is still actively burning inside. Controlling the fire means it is being put out.

"When we have it controlled, that is when there is no fire at all," he said.

He said it's hard to predict when the Kenai Lake Fire will be controlled, saying it could be several days to a week or more. He pointed out that the spark that touched off the Kenai Lake Fire came 10 days after a June 15 planned burn was thought to have been controlled.

Humidity was up to 50 percent near the fire, which kept combustibles from igniting so easily. Winds also were lighter than earlier.

The fire is being fought a mile west of the Seward Highway, near Lawing and Crown Point. Residents and business owners there have not been evacuated, but some are standing by, cars and moving vans loaded and ready to go at a moment's notice.

The Seward Highway remains open.

"The biggest question is if it is open," Markley said. "It's been open the entire time, it's never been closed, and we've never had any intent to close it."

Thousands of Fourth of July revelers are expected through the area this week, making their annual pilgrimage to Seward for the Mount Marathon race and festivities. They will encounter increased traffic and temporary reduced speed limit signs.

Another expected visitor is Sen. Ted Stevens, who will be on the Kenai Peninsula for the Kenai River Classic this week. He indicated in a letter to Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman that he plans on touring the fire area.

One of the questions he raised was why the Tazlina Hotshots, an elite fire-fighting team, was taken off the controlled burn before all the embers were out.

Markley said he was not responding for the Forest Service, but said the Hotshots were called away to a new fire.

"The Forest (Service) just didn't decide to let them go. The prescribed burn was essentially out on the 25th of June and another fire broke out in Alaska and that Hotshot crew was called to go," he said. "It was just coincidence the wind came up when the Hotshots were called to another fire."

The trees in the area of the fire were slated to be logged several years ago, but there was opposition to a harvest, which left prescribed burning as the only option to reduce the level of fuel available to burn, Markley said.

"You have to remove fuels, either mechanically by cutting them and sending them out, or with prescribed fire," he said. "So when that harvest was stopped, a prescribed burn was the only option."

He described prescribed fires as a good tool and conceded it comes with risks.

"But the risk of doing nothing is considered to be higher," he said.

Wind-blown embers ignited forest to the east of the 1,250 acre prescribed burn and has burned an additional 1,893 acres. The total burn area as of Sunday evening was 3,143 acres.

There are 340 people assigned to the fire, along with several helicopters and heavy equipment crews cutting down trees and clearing land.

There have been three minor injuries to firefighters, either cuts or twisted ankles. No private property, save for the report of a bear hunting stand, have been burned.

Markley said businesses and individuals from Seward have been delivering pizza to the fire camps regularly.

"That's been very nice. It's very much appreciated."

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