Kenai Lake blaze still 'creeping'

Fire claims 3,143 acres, containment within sight

Posted: Tuesday, July 03, 2001

Mechanical problems with the heavy helicopters fighting the Kenai Lake Fire delayed containment of the blaze Sunday. Two large choppers were grounded, forcing firefighters to call in water bombers from Fairbanks to help hold the eastern front.

"Today we have five helicopters on the fire working, including the two heavies," Mona Spargo, public affairs assistant for the Chugach National Forest in Anchorage, said Monday.

The fire changed little over the weekend, with light and variable winds and higher relative humidity keeping the advance at bay. The fire is described as "creeping" with some torching.

The firefighters have two lines on the east end of the fire. One they call the direct line, at the edge of the blaze, the other, the indirect line near the highway.

Spargo said the second line is complete and runs from the lake to snowfields.

The total acreage burned remains about 3,143 acres as of late Monday afternoon, which includes the 1,250-acre prescribed burn two weeks ago. Officials estimate 70 percent of the fire was contained, and predicted full containment by 6 p.m. Monday.

One of the two Sikorski choppers on the scene had bucket problems Sunday, according to Gary Lehnhausen, a fire information specialist at the command post on the edge of Kenai Lake. The fabric bucket needed seam repairs because it wouldn't hold the 1,100 gallons of water it was designed to carry. The other "heavy" copter had more serious problems.

"It had a blown seal, a blown hose and a blown pump," Lehnhausen said.

Both were back in service Monday.

The two fixed-wing water bombers from Fairbanks made one pass each on Sunday.

Firefighters have been concentrating on the fire's eastern flank, closest to the Seward Highway, Crown Point and Lawing, because the fire had been advancing in that direction in the teeth of a westerly wind. But now the fire is stagnant, and rain is in the forecast for Wednesday, and with a new weather pattern may come winds from a new direction.

Monday, firefighters were considering a rappel from helicopters onto the western flank to clear a landing spot and staging area.

"The western edge is active, but not moving forward," Spargo said. "But we're looking for a spot to clear where crews can set up and move out from."

Vince Welbaum, an aviation specialist called up from the Payette National Forest in Idaho, said firefighters may instead hike in to the western front and clear an area for helicopter support.

Officials estimate there are 100 tons of fuel per acre available to the fire, much of it beetle-killed white spruce.

Welbaum said even though the forest looks green, there is little of what's called "live fuel moisture."

"Everything may be green and the plants may look like they're growing, but they're in a state that makes them volatile because of the moisture lost to how dry it is," he said.

The 360 firefighters battling the blaze work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. So far, fire fighters have put in a cumulative 25,000 hours on the Kenai Lake Fire, at a cost of $1,336,682.

Firefighters work 16-hour days and are off the eight nighttime hours.

"When you only have so many resources, you can't run two shifts," Lehnhausen said.

He said that despite the shortness of the night, it is still dark enough in the wee hours to make it dangerous for the firefighters on the line.

"Snags are being blown around by the fire, and if one comes down, you don't know it until it hits you," he said.

Humidity goes up and the winds usually die down at night, reducing the intensity of the blaze and its advance. He said it is much more efficient to have firefighters on the line when they are needed, during the day, when humidity is down and winds are up.

"It was awesome. It's very different being there, experiencing it first hand, versus what you see on the news," said Central Emergency Services paramedic/firefighter Barry Tibbitts. "I don't think people have a clue what those people do on the line."

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