As firefighters mopped up an almost 60-acre wildland fire on the south end of North Fork Road, attention shifted on Wednesday to a fire near Caribou Lake that grew from 50 acres on Monday to 700 acres on Tuesday. Both fires threaten homes and cabins in areas north and east of Homer.
Officials on Wednesday also imposed a total burn ban for Southcentral Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, including in Kachemak Bay State Park land. That means no open fires of any kind, including campfires, warming fires and barbecue grills. Propane or gas grills that can be turned off are still allowed. A burn suspension for larger fires and burn barrels was already in place.
While the cause of the North Fork and Caribou Lake fires remain under investigation, officials are tentatively saying the fires were human caused because there were no lightning strikes or possible natural causes.
There were 28 crew members fighting the Caribou Lake Fire had 28 on Wednesday, with Kachemak Emergency Services firefighters driving in by all-terrain vehicles to support a Redding, California, hotshot crew of 20. Air tankers are doing retardant drops, and Fire Boss planes have been scooping water out of the lake.
“They’re going to concentrate on the west side of the lake,” said KESA Chief Bob Cicciarella. “There’s a forecast of high winds tonight and tomorrow. They want to get a good handle on that west side.”
KESA volunteer firefighters have been stretched thin fighting both fires.
Eighteen to 26 structures are threatened at Caribou Lake, said Bridget Bushue, a public information officer with the Bureau of Land Management through the Alaska Interagency Information Center. Caribou Lake is a popular recreational area about 25 miles northeast of Homer and accessible by snowmachine and four-wheeler trail from East End Road. Cicciarella said access on the trail has been good, with few wet spots.
At the North Fork fire, 42 people have been working the fire that started Sunday evening. A bulldozer line now encircles the fire about 1.5 miles east of the Sterling Highbetween Homer and Anchor Point. KESA first responded to the fire about 6:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18. Anchor Point Emergency Services also responded. The south North Fork Road area is in the KESA service area just south of the Anchor Point service area. The initial attack included helicopters with bucket drops and the Fire Boss planes.
The Zigzag Hotshot Crew from Portland, Oregon, arrived Monday to assist the Yukon Hotshot Crew.
The fire has been burning through rough terrain with high grass and spruce trees.
“They’re keeping the dozer line open and mopped up on the edge,” Bushue said. “There were some trees torching. It looks like the fire activity was moderate.”
She said officials aren’t calling the North Fork Fire contained just yet.
“Contained just means the fire’s not spreading out anymore. It doesn’t mean it’s out,” she said. “There are still risks. There are still hazards. Things can change daily.”
Dozer operators also put in a rough road to the North Fork fire scene. Hauling water has been complicated with trying to get heavy trucks to the fire. To help relieve stress on KESA firefighters mobilized to the Caribou Lake Fire, the Homer Volunteer Fire Department has been providing mutual aid with water pumping, said HVFD Chief Mark Kirko. They have now set up a hose line pumping water from the Anchor River into tankers, driving a short distance to an HVFD pumper, and moving water to the scene through hoses.
“This operation where we’re pumping water through hoses all way up to the top is a much cleaner system and a much more dependable water supply,” he said.
Officials put the south North Fork Road and Diamond Ridge Road areas on a Level 1 or “ready” status on Monday. In the Ready-Set-Go alert levels, a Level 1 alert is not a notice to leave. The area is still under “ready” status.
“Level 1 is the lowest,” said Beth Ipsen, a public information officer with the Alaska Interagency Fire Information Office on Monday. “Heads up — there’s a fire in the area. Just be aware of it and start thinking about the next stage.”
“Set” or Level 2 is the next alert status, where people should pack up important papers, medicine, pets and anything valuable they want to take with them. “Go” or Level 3 is the evacuation order.
For information on the Level 1 alert area or information on how to prepare, visit the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management website at http://kpboem.blogspot.com/2019/08/081919-north-fork-fire-diamond-ridge.html.
The Caribou Lake Fire started sometime on Monday, Aug. 19. About 2:45 p.m. Aug. 19, Homer resident Ian Pitzman reported the fire via an inReach satellite communications device to his wife, Stephanie Pitzman, who then reported the fire to emergency dispatchers. Pitzman had been heading out to the family cabin with his daughter and some of her friends. Traveling by four-wheelers and an Argo all-terrain vehicle, he said they saw the fire across a swamp at the west end of Caribou Lake. At first the fire looked like fog or dust, but they soon realized it was a fire. The fire burned to the north and parallel to the lake, up toward the Boxcar Hills, he said.
“We saw it from about a mile away,” Pitzman said on Tuesday. “I don’t know how long it had been going. It wasn’t very big when we saw it. … When I got close enough to realize it was well beyond anything I could deal with by myself and my water bottle, I turned around.”
Pitzman said he went in with his daughter and her friends to their cabin and pulled propane tanks away. When he checked on the fire about 45 minutes later, it had gotten bigger.
“About another hour after that (at about 3:30 p.m.), when the planes showed up, the water bomber planes and the retardant planes, we decided we had better get out of there,” Pitzman said. “It was getting big fast, running up through the timber.”
The Fire Boss planes are float planes that can suck water up through the floats into compartments in the fuselage and then do water drops. The Fire Boss planes also worked the North Fork Fire.
As Pitzman drove out, he said he saw cabin owners going in to protect their property.
“I was very impressed with the airborne response, how quickly they got on the scene,” he said. “We were cheering them as they were dumping.”
Cicciarella said KESA has been getting a lot of support from the community. People have been bringing sandwiches, snacks, energy bars, pizza and other food to firefighters.
“This is Homer at its best,” he said. “It’s been fantastic. A big thank-you goes out to all of them.”
Kirko said resources have been stretched thin at lower peninsula departments.
“We’re being vigilant and making sure we have a resource back-up plan for other calls that might come in,” he said.
Heavy smoke has been drifting in and out of wildfire areas depending on winds, temperatures and other factors. Kirko advised people with asthma and other respiratory conditions to keep windows closed and avoid being outside.
The American Lung Association has advice for people with lung conditions at its website at https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/outdoor/emergencies-and-natural-disasters/wildfires.html.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management also encourages people to visit its website and sign up for emergency alerts by text or email. To get information about fires and other emergency situations, visit the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management at https://kpboem.blogspot.com. To sign up for borough alerts, visit https://alerts.kpb.us/ .
For more information, call the Alaska Interagency Fire Information Office at 907-356-5511 or visit https://akfireinfo.com/