Fire officials delivered some positive news about two lower Kenai Peninsula wildfires at a community meeting Saturday at McNeil Canyon Elementary School.
For the North Fork Fire between Homer and Anchor Point that started on Aug. 18, Alaska Division of Forestry Fire Management Officer Howie Kent said the 58-acre fire should be 100% contained by the end of Saturday.
“The fire lines we put in — we feel like they’re going to hold,” he said.
Evans Kou of the Great Basin Incident Command team out of Boise, Idaho, said the Caribou Lake Fire, now estimated to 895 acres about 25 miles northeast of Homer, is now 20% contained. The end goal is to have it 100% suppressed. With help from Fire Boss water attack aircraft, firefighters stomped down a 2-acre spot fire on the south side of the lake. The fire is north of the west end of the lake.
The Caribou Lake Fire has eight smokejumpers, a hot shot crew, Kachemak Emergency Services firefighters and two more crews from the Lower 48 who arrived in Soldotna on Saturday. Those crews will be shuttled by helicopter to a temporary landing field at the Basargin Road gravel pit.
“Right now we’re feeling pretty good about this fire,” Kou said. “The last report I got from the firefighters was we’re feeling pretty confident we’re going to be able to hold this fire.”
In response to a comment from a man about how hunters use the gravel pit to stage trucks and trailers, Kou said he would like to talk to hunters or hunting organizations about making sure there aren’t user conflicts there.
Kent said that the hunting season hasn’t been closed. He did point out that the Kenai Peninsula and Southcentral Alaska have a complete burn ban, with no camp or warming fires allowed.
“A lot of people want to have their campfires,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Lower 48 crews have begun to arrive in Alaska to take over fire management from the heavily strapped Division of Forestry and local fire departments. KES Chief Bob Cicciarella said he hopes KES volunteers working the Caribou Lake Fire will be able to get a break by Wednesday.
On the North Fork Fire, Anchor Point Emergency Services and Homer Volunteer Fire Department workers have been helping with setting up and running water lines and tanker shuttles from the Anchor River about 3,700 feet uphill to the fire zone.
No cabins, homes or other structures have been lost in the North Fork and Caribou Lake fires. The cause of the Caribou Lake Fire is still undetermined and the North Fork Fire is under investigation.
Jeff Tonkin, a meteorologist with the Great Basin Incident Command team, said the short-term weather forecast looks like more of the sun — hot, clear and dry. The Kenai Peninsula normally gets about 8 inches of rain from May to August; this year it got 2 inches.
“Unfortunately, I’m not going to tell you we’re going to get a lot of rain soon,” Tonkin said.
Low-pressure systems in the Gulf of Alaska off Kodiak aren’t moving up into Cook Inlet.
“They’re just going along Kodiak and the center of the Gulf of Alaska and moving along east,” he said. “…It doesn’t look very moist or wet for the next week or two.”
However, there also aren’t predictions of a strong wind event out of the north like the one that stirred up the Swan Lake Fire. The daylight hours also are getting shorter and the days cooler, he said.
“In those terms, it’s very favorable,” Tonkin said. “We should not see large fire growth.”
Over the next six weeks, there could be low-pressure systems bringing rain in the first week of October.
“I can’t guarantee it,” he said. “It’s the good news I have and I would take it.”
Winds also will tend to be from the southwest, which should offer some relief from smoke for the lower peninsula.
The south North Fork Road and Diamond Ridge Road neighborhoods had been on a Level 1-Ready alert since Monday, Aug. 19, but were removed on Friday morning. Caribou Lake was never put on an alert. When the fire blew up, officials also did an assessment to make sure no one was staying at cabins in the popular recreation area.
The Level 1-2-3 or Ready-Set-Go alert system is one state fire officials and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management have been advocating as a simple, consistent way of communicating fire evacuation readiness. Borough officials didn’t use the KPB Alert system of text or email to send out notifications, relying instead on news and social media and radio.
A Level 1 alert means be aware — there’s a fire in the vicinity, said Sarah Saarloos, a public information officer with the Division of Forestry.
“With how dry it is, one of the things we’ve been saying (is) all of Alaska, especially south of the Alaska Range — it’s a ready,” she said.
Level 2 means “set,” to be ready and prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. People should have vehicles loaded and ready to go. Family who need special care like seniors should be relocated. It’s also the time to move farm animals, horses and sled dog teams.
Level 3 means “go,” to evacuate immediately because of an immediate fire danger.
Saarloos said people often ask how they can help firefighters. At the meeting, one woman with a cabin in the Caribou Hills offered her place for shelter. Kou said firefighters get fresh food every day and tarps and tents to sleep under.
“Thank you very much for the offer,” he said. “…These are a breed of firefighter who likes to be outdoors.”
The best way people can help firefighters is to be fire wise, Saarloos said.
“The best thing you can give to Alaska wildland firefighters or a Lower 48 is some defensible space around your property,” she said. “Do that work ahead of time, around your home. Brush out your driveway.”
Cicciarella pointed out that during the Mile 17 Fire east of McNeil Canyon in May 2009, several homeowners credited firewise efforts with saving their homes. In response to the spruce bark beetle effort, the borough had a more aggressive Firewise program. Currently the Division of Forestry Steward, John Winters, is managing that program.
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, attended the meeting. She said afterward that she would look into expanding Firewise programs.
“I want to be proactive about what we can do,” she said about wildfires. “What we can do to prevent them and be ready in a stressful situation.”
For more information on Firewise efforts, visit https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Firewise-USA .
Kent said the current cost estimates for responding to peninsula fires have been $300,000 for the North Fork Fire, $800,000 for the Caribou Lake Fire and $26.5 million for the Swan Lake Fire.
“Anytime we get aviation assets involved, it’s going to be costly. Aircraft time is expensive,” he said.