The Card Street fire has been raging through Sterling since Monday, and is now estimated to be more than 2,500 acres. As it threatens the homes of hundreds of Kenai Peninsula residents, local governments and utility providers are responding to protect citizens and their homes.
The Alaska Division of Forestry enacted an open burn suspension on the Kenai Peninsula Monday. Kenai and Soldotna followed suit by Wednesday morning.
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources also enacted a burning suspension Wednesday evening, including all cooking, warming, signaling fires or any type of fire. The use of stoves and grills is still permitted.
Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker said an open burn ban, which prohibits all burns other than covered or gas grills, is the best option for minimizing the chance of additional fires starting on the peninsula.
“The conditions have not changed, and we’re expecting warmer weather over the next few days,” Tucker said. “There’s a side chance of some rain this weekend, but not enough to reduce the threat of wildfire. I could see this (ban) happening for a few weeks at least.”
Tucker said the Kenai Fire Department will enforce the ban by responding to violators and asking them to put out their fires. He said the department will issue citations.
“It’s so critically dry out there,” he said. “Any little fire can grow dramatically. We’ve seen this already with the Card Street fire here locally.”
Two fires ignited in the Cooper Landing area by 9 p.m. on Tuesday. One, the Stetson Creek fire near Russian Lakes, was last reported to be 250-350 acres in size by Mona Spargo, USDA Forest Service public information officer for Chugach National Forest. The other, called the Juneau Lake fire, was last reported to be about 100 acres.
The City of Soldotna also enacted an open burn ban at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Fire Marshal Wes Perkins said that while he understands some people will be upset at not being able to have campfires, the lack of fire fighting resources in the state has him concerned.
“I went outside and it’s a tinderbox,” Perkins said. “I do not want the town to burn down while our resources are stretched so thin. We just can’t afford it.”
Several other entities are racing to enact burn bans as fires continue to crop up around the peninsula. The Chugach National Forest implemented a “stage 1 fire restriction for Kenai Peninsula dispersed lands.” Fires and campfires are prohibited, except in a Forest Service developed camp or picnic ground. Cooking stoves and gas grills may still be used, but smoking is also restricted.
According to an announcement released by the Kenai National Wildlife refuge, “all open camp, cooking and warming fires and use of charcoal and/or charcoal grills” are banned on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge until further notice because of the Card Street and other peninsula fires. Cooking stoves and gas grills are still permitted on the refuge.
Additionally, all campgrounds, trails and public cabins in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, are closed due to increased fire activity.
In order to minimize the harm of the Card Street and Cooper Landing area fires, the Homer Electric Association and ENSTAR Natural Gas Company have made changes to their service in affected areas.
HEA sent out a press release at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday stating that service had been shut off for 169 users in the Kenai Keys, and that the company was forced to de-energize a transmission line too close to the Cooper Landing fires.
The press release states HEA crew members were forced to leave the Kenai Keys Road area due to hazardous conditions Tuesday night, but Director of Member Relations Joe Gallagher said they were able to return later that evening to continue work. He said the same number of residents are still without power.
“We pulled them back a little bit, but later on in the evening we were actually able to get them back in there,” he said. “At this point we are waiting for direction from the Division of Forestry as to when it’s safe to re-energize.”
Gallagher said the Kenai Keys area is HEA’s main focus. He said the de-energized transmission line in the Cooper Landing area is an unusual situation, but that the Kenai Peninsula will be able to handle it.
“With that line de-energized, Homer Electric is basically islanded because we’re no longer connected to that grid,” Gallagher said. “That link no longer exists, so power cannot move back and forth from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula. It’s not the best situation to be in.”
ENSTAR Natural Gas has shut off service to homes on Feuding Lane in Sterling. Communications Manager Lindsay Hobson said this is affecting roughly 200 customers.
“We still have not received a timeline as to when we can turn gas back on and reconnect those customers,” she said.
Hobson said, to her knowledge, no other areas have had their ENSTAR service shut off.