In a parade of cars and buses flowing west on the Seward Highway toward Anchorage, firefighters left the dwindling Kenai Lake and Mystery Hills fires Wednesday evening and throughout the day Thursday.
On Wednesday, a Type II management team of six was flown in from Washington state and arrived at the Kenai Lake fire to replace the Type I team.
"We arrived around noon yesterday (Wednesday) and we had a meeting where we introduced everybody and their counterparts, we basically had new people follow around the Type I people for as much as a brain dump on them that we could," said Mary Huels, the new Type II fire information officer.
The teams officially turned over beginning Thursday morning at 12:01 and since then have been busy tying up odds and ends.
"The first team did a good job," she said. "They left it pretty good for us."
Around 150 people remain at the site. One Hotshot crew and four other Type II hand crews continue working around the fire's perimeter in mop-up efforts. One helicopter is at the fire with another waiting on standby in case of an emergency.
The crews working along the fire's edge are focusing their efforts on the eastern side because it is nearest to any structures or communities that would be in danger if the fire flared up again, Huels said.
A majority of firefighters were scheduled to leave before today, but Huels said the number will continue to dwindle as the fire nears a controlled status.
The fire is considered contained, thus the transition from Type I to Type II status, but it has not been declared controlled. Contained fires are ones that have a definite border, something like a trail or a natural boundary blocking it from spreading. A controlled fire, however, is a cold burn -- one that, unless a freak weather pattern came up, would not spark up under predicted conditions.
According to Huels, the Kenai Lake fire management team has not set a control date yet.
"We got good rain, if it looks good when they finish today, they will probably start thinking about setting a date," she said Thursday.
Still, the fire may not be declared controlled until the Type II team has left and the U.S. Forest Service has taken the fire back under its jurisdiction, she said.
For now, the crews are mopping up in what Huels described as a search and destroy effort of all the remaining hot areas.
"We still have one Hotshot crew left for an emergency. I wouldn't be surprised if they left pretty soon," Huels said. "How long we are here depends on the progress."
The rain continues to fall, but it isn't soaking through the moss to the lower levels of the forest floor, where embers could still be smoldering. As of Thursday, Huels said, the moisture had only soaked down 1 inch. Therefore, crews have to go in and stir things up so the rain can penetrate the fuels entirely.
Another mass exodus was under way at the Mystery Hills fire, where half an inch of rain also helped suppression efforts, said Mindy Sherrieb, fire information officer. Officials expected to declare the fire controlled by 6 p.m. Thursday.
"Basically, they are pulling the crews and equipment out of the spike camps," she said. More than half of the crews walked out of the area and the rest were flown out Thursday.
Five crews were sent home, but two hand crews are scheduled to work today mopping up and checking for possible smoldering hot spots. They are also cleaning up the fire line and putting catch basins in to redirect water to vegetation.
Fire officials on Thursday evening were still trying to determine the total acreage consumed by the blaze, although it is believed to be around 1,000 acres.
Although both fires are well on their way to being under control, there is still a flight restriction in effect over the Kenai Lake and Mystery Hills fires. Pilots are required to steer clear of both areas.
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