As the threat of the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire lessens in Kasilof and Funny River, the massive fire pushes further into the refuge and threatens structures near Skilak Lake.
The Kenai Backcountry Lodge, owned by Alaska Wildland Adventures, lies in the path of the Funny River fire along its northeastern edge where there have been few efforts to mitigate its advance as Kenai National Wildlife Refuge managers hope for a burn that will revitalize the area’s ecosystem.
What few efforts there have been, however, have focused on keeping structures in that area of wilderness safe from the flames, said Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team public information officer Jim Schwarber.
As the rain and low winds continued Wednesday on the Kenai Peninsula, all evacuation advisories from the wildfire have been lifted.
Overnight, the fire gained acreage, but its growth has slowed considerably. As of 8 p.m. Tuesday, the wildfire had consumed 186,862 acres of the 1.92 million acre wildlife refuge with just a few non-refuge acres burned along containment lines.
“It’s not growing significantly,” said public information officer Tom Lavagnino during a morning news briefing Wednesday.
The fire is about 30 percent contained according to the management team.
Overnight, about .04 inches of rain fell on the fire and the weather forecast calls for rain throughout the week, however it would take several consecutive days of heavier rain to alter the overall fire activity, according to a management team media release.
If the rain stops and the wind picks up, several cabins, including the privately owned Kenai Backcountry Lodge could be threatened.
Other cabins are in the path of the fire including the Moose Creek cabin, Taylor Cabin, Andrew Berg Cabin and Lake Emma cabin. Firefighters are in the area working to protect those cabins from being burned, Schwarber said. Five structures have been confirmed as lost to the fire including one outbuilding in the Kenai Keys and four recreational cabins.
The time it could take the wildfire to reach the other cabins is weather dependent, Schwarber said.
But, despite the potential threat, President of Alaska Wildland Adventures Kirk Hossle, said he is confident in the fire protections currently in place around his Skilak Lake remote-access cabin.
“This is our third fire in 10 or 11 years, so we’ve had quite a bit of experience getting ready for these things,” he said. “It hasn’t been damaged by wildfire and we want to keep it that way.”
Beginning Sunday, staff started pumping water onto the property and a fire break that was constructed around the property in 2003 has been maintained, Hossle said.
“We’ve pretty much got the whole five acres saturated,” he said.
On Monday fire crews arrived to assess the property and they brought pumps, hoses and sprinklers to help protect the buildings.
“Two or three came out and assessed the property and complemented us on watering the land and the fire break,” Hossle said. “We were very happy to see them.”
Hossle said he was happy to see the rain on Tuesday as well.
That rain has allowed firefighters to gain better control over where the fire is burning.
“(It) moderates fire behavior and allows firefighters to get close and do direct attacks on the fire,” Schwarber said.
Currently there are 713 firefighters on the ground, working to contain the wildfire, according to management team data and, while the weather has become more favorable, the teams are not leaving.
“We’re not ramping down yet by any means, we are keeping the resources here,” Schwarber said. “This fire is ranked No. 1 in priority in the nation — something Alaska fires rarely do.”
The quick expansion of the wind-driven wildfire is part of the reason so many firefighters have been assigned to help keep it controlled and away from communities, he said.
“(It was a) big, significant fire, a lot at risk from fire,” he said. “Firefighters all realize we have avoided a disaster here.”
Hossle said he was thankful for the efforts of the fire crews to protect his property and the 10 staff currently staying at the lodge.
“I’m not sure who is coordinating it, but having folks come out and assess the property and set us up was great. Once I contacted the fire control folks, they started calling us and they keep us up to date with where the fire was. We’re very grateful to have that support when you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
The fire is still about seven miles away from his lodge and Hossle said the terrain could slow the blaze.
He is confident that the lodge will remain standing.
“If all goes well and things remain safe, we expect to host guests next week. We’ll see how it goes,” he said.