Update at 2:17 a.m. Sunday
An emergency evacuation order was issued and then lifted in a two-hour period late Friday into early Saturday as residents of a neighborhood about ten miles south of Soldotna reported a wall of flames near their homes.
The usually quiet Sterling Highway was a hub of activity at midnight Saturday as cars streamed north toward Soldotna after the Central Emergency Services fire chief Chris Mokracek issued an evacuation order for miles 103-105 of the Sterling Highway as a five-mile line of flames from the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire advanced on homes in the area.
The nearly 70,000 acre fire has been burning on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for several days and firefighters have been working to keep it from affecting homes in Funny River — the origins of the blaze — and Kasilof, a community that sits directly to the West of the main line of the fire.
“The fire was actually on a ridge, approximately a mile away from the Cardwell neighborhood … it was on that ridge, approaching and there were very large flames, there as a pretty significant look to that fire,” said Scott Walden, emergency manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Alaska incident management team public information officer Jim Schwarber said the residents were reporting flames between 50-100 feet high that advanced rapidly between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. Friday.
“Not only was it impressive, but it was very scary,” Schwarber said.
The fire activity has since calmed as it hit a wet, marshy area and ran out of fuel, he said.
Mokracek and the incident commander of the Funny River Horse Trail Fire met after midnight Saturday morning and decided that since the flare-up had died down, it was no longer an imminent threat and people could return to their homes, Schwarber said.
“They felt it would be safe for folks to return home over night, both so they could be home and so they could continue packing and prepare in case they need to leave again,” he said.
The area that was evacuated sit just north of the Pollard Loop area in Kasilof where residents have been under an evacuation advisory.
The approximately 50 homes in the evacuated area where not covered under the earlier advisory, Schwarber said.
“I’ve heard that a lot of people were already preparing, just from being careful or being aware of the situation that their neighbors were experiencing,” Schwarber said. “People were moving antique cars, they were moving boats, they were moving four-wheelers. I saw a large shed on a flat-bed. There was a real exodus in the watch area of people who were taking advantage of the extra warning they wre given to move some things in case the fire spread far.”
Typically the incident commander would issue an evacuation order, in this case the fire is burning on the refuge and falls under the Alaska Department of Natural Resources – Division of Forestry’s management, however the fire chief reserves the right to issue an order if the immediacy of a situation calls for it, Walden said.
“In this situation 9-1-1 received calls saying there was a fire encroaching on their neighborhood, when they got there and the chief realized that these people were starting an evacuation on their own, he realized that he needed to make sure the rest of the neighborhood knew what was going on,” Walden said. “He had that authority to make that decision without checking with forestry … the chief made a good call.”
Alaska State Troopers and Central Emergency Services firefighters went door to door telling residents that they were being evacuated.
Walden said residents who returned should still be ready to leave if the fire advanced again.
“When these things are going on now, it’s fluid. If they’re in the vicinity we’ve been pretty straightforward with people to say ‘be vigilant and make sure you have your important papers together, your medicines in one spot and be ready to go.’ It’s a good idea for people to be ready to leave their homes, at least temporarily at this point,” Walden said.
Update 1:17 am
Funny River Fire officials are reporting that an evacuation order issued at about 11 pm Friday evening has been lifted.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough emergency manager has ordered an evacuation of Mile 103 to 105 of the Sterling Highway early Saturday morning. The Funny River Horse Trail wildfire is threatening homes in the area, said Michelle Weston, public information officer. Alaska State Troopers, Central Emergency Services, and Alaska Department of Natural – Division of Forestry personnel are going door to door to inform residents of the evacuation order, Weston said. Officials are asking anyone on the Sterling Highway headed into Soldotna to take Kalifornsky Beach Road to go around the affected portions of the Sterling Highway.