It has taken 10 days, 760 people and more than $6.1 million for firefighters to gain control of the spread of the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire.
And, while plans are in place to begin phasing crews out of the area — at least four of the 17 fire crews will leave in the next few days — it is not yet clear when the fire will be manageable enough that operational crews can begin disassembling the massive logistical operation necessary to manage a 300 square mile wildfire that has threatened hundreds of homes and thousands of Kenai Peninsula residents.
At its peak, on Saturday and Sunday fire operations cost $1.13 million and $1.05 million a day, respectively. That figure has since fallen to about $750,000 a day by Tuesday. The bulk of the operational costs, nearly one-quarter have been spent on air support for the ground crews including the costs of fire retardant, helicopter support, water-scooping planes and fixed-wing aircraft, according to Alaska Interagency Incident Management team financial data.
Another large chunk of the money spent thus far, has gone toward crews and direct operations of the fire. Each crew is between 16-20 people.
“It’s really nice to see operations stuff is taking up the majority of the pie,” said deputy finance section chief for the management team Jaci Stimach. “In some fires in the Lower 48 it almost starts to look like support costs are the biggest chunks. We want to keep the support side down and have more devoted to operations because those are the ones that do all the work.”
As the fire gets closer to being acceptably contained, support costs will go up and operation costs will go down as crews and equipment are readied to leave the area.
Often a large part of the costs of managing a fire are incurred behind the scenes, Stimach said.
“You see the helicopters, see the ducks flying, see the trucks, the engines, the firefighters out there; but you don’t see the people in the camp,” she said.
At the height of activity, 276 pieces of equipment — including rental vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and boats — were in use by firefighters, Stimach said. But, as activity has slowed so too has the need for that equipment.
“We got rid of the dozers yesterday because there was no need for them,” Stimach said. “We’ve got rain, we don’t want to be cutting up more of the property than we need, so we let them go.”
Currently all of the costs will be billed to the State of Alaska, Stimach said, but ultimately the state will bill the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service because the fire was primarily contained on that agency’s land.
Crews will begin to leave as they hit their allotted time on a fire, usually 14 days, said management team public information officer Willy Begay. That time limit applies to all firefighters and admin personnel so, by necessity, operations will begin to slow.
“We try and keep it right-sized,” Stimach said. “There’s no reason to keep people out there if there’s no reason for them to be. There’s no reason to have people out in harms way if there’s nothing happening.”
As the rain continues to fall, indications have been that the worst of fire threat has faded. The Lower Skilak Lake Campground and boat launch were opened Thursday — the last remaining holdover from evacuations and advisories when the wildfire hopped the Kenai River.
Still, fire managers are not yet ready to begin a swift draw-down as the current fire lines have yet to be tested and several consecutive days of heavier rain would be needed to alter the overall fire activity.
Managers said the fire could be burning into the summer as Kenai National Wildlife Refuge managers want the fire to continue burning as long as it doesn’t threaten any structures.
“According to our weather guy … come Monday, it looks like the rain’s going to be gone, it’s going to start drying up and it looks like we’ll probably get some test on the line,” she said. “A little bit of wind, if we survive a day or two with warming trends and a little bit of wind, yeah we’ll pretty much have a really quick ramp down. But we don’t want to leave without some test of the line happening.”
Meanwhile, the community continues to bring supplies to the management camp.
“We’ve had so many thousands of cookies donated,” Stimach said. “We’ve been sending them to the firefighters who are stuck on the ground. I don’t think we’ve ever seen quite this outpouring of appreciation on any assignment. It has been really nice.”
A community barbecue has been planned for Sunday June 1 from 6-8 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Kalifornsky Beach Road. Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and others including Krista Schooley have put the barbecue together to thank Forestry, The Alaska Incident Management Team, Central Emergency Services, the Alaska State Troopers, the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska State Parks and the American Red Cross of Alaska for their roles during the fire.
The event is informal and designed to give community members a face-to-face with firefighters on the ground. An open mic will be provided for community members who would like to thank the firefighters. The event is free and open to the public. Hamburgers, hot dogs, snacks and chips will be served. A dessert table will include delicious contributions from the community. Although food donations other than desserts will not be accepted, call Senator Peter Micciche’s office at 907-283-7996, if you would like to volunteer or contribute. Other information can be shared by going to the Sen. Peter Micciche Facebook page for the main event, or Krista Schooley’s Facebook for dessert information.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org