A wall of dense smoke engulfed portions of the Kenai Peninsula Tuesday as a fire that started near the Funny River Horse Trail late Monday grew to consume more than 20,000 acres and stretch in a 10-mile line from Funny River Road to the shoreline of Tustumena Lake.
Late Tuesday, the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team reported that new mapping indicated the fire had grown in size.
The ceiling of the smoke column reached at least 8,000 feet into the sky, dwarfing portions of Soldotna, Kasilof, Clam Gulch and running south along the eastern shore of the Cook Inlet. A satellite image posted by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources-Division of Forestry on Tuesday showed heavy smoke from the blaze drifting south over Homer as far as Kodiak and curling east out over the Gulf of Alaska.
The fire spread quickly through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in a long, thin line typical of wind-driven blazes, said Andy Alexandrou, public information officer for the Division of Forestry.
No structures have been threatened and no evacuation orders have been issued — though firefighting personnel will take over Skyview High School in Soldotna Wednesday and establish their command post in the building, according to a media release.
In Kasilof, where dense smoke dominated the skyline Tuesday, spectators pulled off of the Sterling Highway throughout the day to take photographs and watch the fire grow.
While flames were not readily identifiable from the highway, firefighters reported flame lengths of 125 feet according to the release.
Sherry Gilbert and her husband Jim Gilbert left their home in Kasilof to get a closer look at the position of the wildfire as smoke encircling their home made the two think they could be trapped.
“I couldn’t get her to do any work,” Jim said.
Sherry said she had been keeping the radio on to listen for updates on the location of the fire.
“I’ve never been close to a fire like this,” she said. “The radio hasn’t really been talking about it. Not really.”
She said she was worried about how she and her neighbors would get updates if the fire changed directions and headed toward populated areas of the Kenai Peninsula.
While the couple stood watching the flames, several other vehicles stopped while drivers and passengers stared at the smoke plumes.
Each new arrival asked for updates from people who had already stopped — several said they’d never been close to a wildfire.
As the 40 firefighters from the Chena Interagency Hotshots and Gannett Glacier Fire Crew worked on the fire, Kenai Peninsula Borough officials also monitored the situation.
Scott Walden, Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management Director, said the borough had an emergency plan in place and would use a reverse 911 system to call targeted areas in the event that an evacuation order is issued.
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.
Crews worked until midnight Monday and started up again at about 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 were expected to arrive Tuesday evening. The planes are 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 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 dumps 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, Spady said.
With the remote nature of the Funny River fire and its location on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, water has primarily been dropped to control its advance. 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 the amount of water they can hold and their ability to replenish quickly from 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 Cook Inlet.
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 was in effect until 10 p.m. Tuesday.
Walden said while he has not received an evacuation declaration from the Division of Forestry, 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 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.