Funny River Horse Trail fire grows to 7,000 acres

  • By DAN BALMER
  • Tuesday, May 20, 2014 4:02pm
  • News

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire has spread to 7,000 acres and moved to the west and east along the shores of Tustumena Lake.

Andy Alexandrou, public information officer for the Division of Forestry Kenai office said no structures have been threatened and no evacuation order has been issued.

Scott Walden, Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management Director said the borough has been following the situation closely and has an emergency plan in place and would use a reverse 911 system to call targeted areas in the event an evacuation would be necessary.

Fire crews have set up a flank point and concentrated efforts on keeping the fire from advancing past the western edge of Fox Lake. Alexandrou said currently 40 firefighters from the Chena Interagency Hotshots and Gannett Glacier Fire Crew out of Palmer are on scene with more crews expected later in the day. Crews worked to midnight Monday and started up again at 6 a.m. Tuesday, he said.

“We are bulking up with six more crews to give the local guys a break from the fire and concentrate on initial attack fires,” Alexandrou said. “The last thing we want is to have injuries due to fatigue. We will gladly receive reinforcements with open arms.”

Four water-scooping planes out of Williams Lake, British Columbia are expected at 6 p.m. and will be able to pick up water from Tustumena Lake to douse the flames, he said.

Vince Spady, Air Tanker base manager at Kenai Municipal Airport, said two tankers contracted from Conair Aviation out of Abbotsford, British Columbia Canada made 12 runs Monday between the Funny River fire and Tyonek fire with six dumps of water on the Funny River fire and 6 retardant and water at Tyonek. Tuesday, the planes had made seven dumps between them as of 3 p.m. The tankers are limited to 10-hour days and hold 2,000 gallons in each load. Their tanks take four minutes to fill, he said.

With the Funny River fire in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, water has primarily been dropped. The Division of Forestry received a deviance and at least one load of retardant was dumped near Tustumena Lake to prevent the fire from reaching a cabin, Spady said.

He said the ‘ducks,’ or scooper planes will help tremendously with how much water they can hold and will be able to replenish quickly in the nearby lake.

“If we do get an east wind and the fire starts blowing toward homes, I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” he said.

Alexandrou said while the Division of Forestry has received calls from residents in Kasilof and Clam Gulch concerned about the direction of the fire, there has not been any direct wind from the east that would push the fire west toward the Cook Inlet and no evacuation has been issued.

Smoke from the Funny River Road fire also prompted the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to issue an air quality advisory on Tuesday morning. Dense smoke being blown south is impacting Kasilof, Ninilchik, Homer and nearby Kachemak Bay and lower Kenai Peninsula communities. The DEC has classified air quality as between good and unhealthy. Immediately downwind of the fire, air quality is classified as hazardous.

‘Unhealthy’ means that people with respiratory or heart disease, children and the elderly should avoid any outdoor activity. Everyone else should avoid prolonged exertion. ‘Hazardous’ means everyone should avoid any outdoor exertion and that those at high risk should remain indoors.

Air quality can be estimated by looking at visibility. If visibility is 1.5-2.5 miles, air quality is unhealthy. If .9 to 1.4 miles, air quality is very unhealthy. If .8 miles or less, air quality is hazardous.

The National Weather Service also issued a red flag warning because of strong winds for the entire western Kenai Peninsula.  A red flag warning means that critical fire weather conditions are imminent or occurring. Winds are 10 to 20 mph with gusts to 30 mph near Cook Inlet. Relative humidity is 20 to 30 percent. The red flag warning is in effect until 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Walden said while he has not received an evacuation declaration from the Division of Forestry, he said the borough has a plan in place in the event one would be needed 

The borough developed a plan for Ninilchick following the 2009 Shanta Creek wildfire, which burned more than 13,000 acres.

Walden said he has been in contact with the DEC about the air quality and if people with known respiratory problems feel the need to leave their homes they should have a plan in mind on where to go and make sure they bring enough supplies and let people know where they are going.

“I cannot stress this enough no evacuation has been ordered,” he said. “But sometimes the weather changes and we have to act quickly.”

Kenai Municipal Airport Manager Mary Bondurant said while flight service has not been affected in Kenai, the Soldotna Airport has been closed to closed to all outside flights with the exception of fire traffic.

Earlier Tuesday, Alexandrou told the Clarion that the fire was likely human-caused, though it is unclear exactly how it started, he said. 

“It could have been a campfire, or an exhaust system from a recreational vehicle, we don’t know,” he said. 

*Information from Homer News was added to this report.

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