Editor’s note: A woman in this article was identified by an incorrect last name. Erik Huebsch’s wife is Catherine Cassidy.
When the Funny River wildfire broke out on May 19, the wind-driven blaze threatened thousands of homes between Funny River and Tustumena Lake. It took several million dollars and nearly 800 personnel to contain the northern and western edges of the blaze and steer it further into the wildlife refuge, away from local communities.
All-told, the fire consumed nearly 200,000 acres of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land.
For some residents of the Kenai Peninsula, the looming threat was a wake-up call, a reminder that living near the 1.92 million acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge requires heightened fire-awareness.
“People kind of know it in the back of their minds, but I think there’s still a sense of ‘this isn’t going to happen to me,’ said Kenai Peninsula Borough Health and Safety Officer Brad Nelson. “But sometimes it does happen to you.”
The Funny River Wildfire wasn’t the first wildfire to threaten Kenai Peninsula residents. A lighting-sparked fire burned several thousand acres on the Southern Peninsula in 2005. Another in 2007 burned about 50,0000 acres and nearly 200 structures. In 2009, the Shanta Creek Wildfire started on the Kenai Peninsula Wildfires refuge and it burned more than 13,000 acres.
The population continues to grow on the Kenai Peninsula — up from about 25,000 in 1980 to nearly 60,000 in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The fire season, and dangers associated with it, arrives at about the same time every year and for some of those new to the area, the fires come as a surprise, others are prepared. “We’ve seen
people prepared to bug out at a moment’s notice,” Nelson said. “They’ve got their clothes and important belongings in one spot, ready to be taken quickly.”
The borough’s Rapid Notify Self Registration for emergency notifications, an automated phone alert system for emergency notifications, saw a rush of new users during the fire.
Before the Funny River Fire, more than 800 were registered to use the system. That number tripled during the Funny River Fire when more than 2,600 people registered to receive alerts, according to the borough’s office of emergency management.
Many of the people who registered were from outside of the Funny River community.
“The Funny River area saw this back with (the) Shanta Creek (fire), so they’re pretty well prepared. What has joined is that Kasilof and highway area where the communities are growing rapidly,” Nelson said.
The proximity of the fire put the danger that the forefront of some people’s minds.
“We’ve had people fire-wising their property,” he said. “We saw people clearing trees, getting leaves out of their rain gutters — which is just tinder waiting to happen — getting logs away from their homes, getting bushes scaled back.”
Some called Central Emergency Services to make sure their properties were easier to find.
“In some cases, their houses are not on the map system. They’re off the beaten path. It looks like a game trail and it’s a driveway to their house,” Nelson said.
On May 25, when a strong south wind pushed the fire toward the community of Funny River and Steve McClure’s property, his family learned the lesson of preparedness first-hand.
The McClure’s five-acre property on Killey Street borders the Kenai River. On that warm, windy day, it became a battleground for CES firefighters who faced a wall of flames several hundred feet high as they stood at the back of the property. Cars, trucks and trailers laden with belongings streamed from the area as firefighters attempted to keep the fire from jumping the Kenai River and pushing into Sterling.
Firefighters moved McClure’s furniture, cleared brush and prepared to make a stand in one of the outbuildings on his property before the whole area was doused in flame retardant foam. Black Hawk helicopters scooped water from the nearby river, wetting everything down and chasing errant flames. Ultimately the McClure property — and every other home on the cul-de-sac was saved.
It was a close call for McClure.
“It’s a really helpless feeling. You’re worried about going out there and checking on your stuff. You don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I went out there that morning and tried to get out what I could. That’s kind of hard too. What do you take? What do you leave?”
While the McClure family lived on the property full time, they now live on Robinson Loop and use their Funny River property primarily for McClure’s guiding business.
Despite the close call with the Funny River blaze, McClure said the family hasn’t changed much on the Funny River property except what he leaves there during the summers.
“Guidebooks, fishing equipment. I’d leave whatever it took to get going in the summer time,” he said. “After that, I wouldn’t leave them out there now.”
For Erik Huebsch and Catherine Cassidy, the wildfire was a visitor they’d expected for a long time at the Bear Creek cabin.
“We knew it was going to happen,” he said. “We had 2 million acres of fuel around us up there and we were expecting a fire. We were the only property owners out there that had our own pump and hose and sprinkler setup and I had it running before any of the fire crews showed up.”
The Bear Creek subdivision is a remote-access area on the northern shore of Tustumena Lake and the couple, who live on Kalifornsky Beach Road, took a boat out to their property and spent days working to protect it from the looming flames. The wildfire got within one-quarter mile of their home.
“The whole area really needed to burn,” Erik Huebsch said. “It had been practically 100 years since it burned and that’s sort of the natural way of things.”
The couple learned to protect their property following the 2004 Glacier Creek Fire. It burned more than 6,000 acres and came within four miles of their property. The experience made a huge difference in how they treated the property.
“We put a lot of effort into putting the firewise treatment out there,” he said. “We thinned trees. We limbed them up as high as we could reach. I took ladders round those trees so that I could those up 10 to 12-feet off the ground.”
When firefighters and smokejumpers again landed on the shores of the subdivision, the Huebsch and Cassidy had their own property soaked and were ready to help.
“They dumped thousands of pounds of gear and equipment on the beach that was brought in by the refuge landing craft,” he said. “Catherine was running our four-wheeler and trailer, hauling it all out and spreading it around for the whole crew.”
When the wind shifted and the fire pushed north, the Huebsch and Cassidy helped to clear the more mile of hoses the firefighters had laid out, he said.
One thing the couple learned during the Funny River fire, Huebsch said, was that their pumps needed constant attention.
“There’s kind of a weird thing that was happening here to not only our pump system but the fire crew also,” he said. “There’s this algae in the lake and … the more the wind would blow, the more algae would get stirred up and the intakes on the pump would clog. It was just a struggle to keep everything functioning.”
Several people in the Funny River community said the wildfire made them rethink a decade-old discussion the community had on building a bridge over the Kenai River and connecting the area to Sterling.
“That’s what I reflect on from the fire,” McClure said. “That’s the biggest thing. When we had the fire, I think about that bridge and think, ‘man it would be a lot easier if there was a bridge there.’”
While some residents worked to make their homes and properties safer, Nelson said human nature is such that as memories of the Funny River Fire fade so too will the zeal for fire safety and alertness.
“What I’m expecting is that as the population grows … those new people are going to be taken by surprise the next time this happens because it’s inevitably going to happen again. We have vast swaths of areas that have not burned in a long time and keeping that in mind and always being prepared is necessary. It’s not just wildland fires you have to be aware of. It’s earthquake danger, flood danger, locusts, brimstone, just being ready is always a good thing.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org