Photo by Dan Balmer/Peninsula Clarion US Senator Mark Begich thanks firefighters for their efforts in the Funny River Road wildfire during a media briefing Tuesday.

Photo by Dan Balmer/Peninsula Clarion US Senator Mark Begich thanks firefighters for their efforts in the Funny River Road wildfire during a media briefing Tuesday.

Wildfire now 46 percent contained, not caused by campfire

  • By DAN BALMER and RASHAH McCHESNEY
  • Tuesday, May 27, 2014 9:35pm
  • News

Updated at 11:22 a.m. Thursday

The Funny River Horse Trail wildfire is up to 192,831 acres and 46 percent contained, according to the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team.

Investigators have determined while the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire is human caused, it didn’t start from an abandoned campfire.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking help from the public as they investigate the cause to the wildfire that has grown to more than 300 miles in 10 days. The fire was discovered along Woodcut Road near Mile 6.5 of the Funny River Road at about 4:15 p.m. on May 19.

Anyone with information about the fire start or about people or vehicles in the Woodcut Road area on the afternoon of May 19 is asked to contact Alaska State Troopers at 907-262-4453. Callers can remain anonymous.

Today, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has reopened the Lower Skilak and Bottenintnin Lake campgrounds and boat launches after they were closed on May 25.

Campfire restrictions remain in effect.

Fire crews have used the cooler rainy conditions to their advantage as they continue to mop-up up to 200 feet from fire line. The humidity has risen above 45 percent and up to .10 inch of rain fell in the west end of the fire.

Weather conditions Thursday call for winds from the east increasing to 10-15 mph and gust up to 25 mph, according to incident management officials.

Crews will continue to strengthen containment lines on the west side of the fire in Kasilof and the Sterling Highway areas as well as on Funny River Road. Containment lines north of Torpedo Lake and the Kenai River will also be strengthened.

The number of firefighters working the fire has grown to 760 as of Thursday as the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire remains the No. 1 priority in the nation, said James Schwarber, public information officer with the incident management team.

One firefighter injured his knee Wednesday while working the fire and is being treated, according to the incident command officials.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday: 

 As the rain and low winds continue Wednesday on the Kenai Peninsula, all evacuation advisories from the Funny River Horse Trail fire have been lifted.

Overnight,  the fire gained acreage but its growth has slowed considerably.

The last number released Tuesday by the Alaska Interagency Management Team was 182,209 acres while the updated acreage map on Wednesday showed 183,294 acres.

“It’s not growing significantly,” said management team Public Information Officer Tom Lavagnino.

The fire is about 30 percent contained according to the management team.

The cooler, damp weather and lack of significant wind has slowed the fire activity, Lavagnino said.

All evacuation advisories have been lifted for Kenai Peninsula residents as of Wednesday afternoon.

Overnight about .04 inches of rain fell on the fire and the weather forecast calls for rain throughout the week however, several consecutive days of heavier precipitation are needed to alter overall fire activity, according to a management team media release.

Still, the rain has been a boon to firefighters.

“(It) moderates fire behavior and allows firefighters to get close and do direct attacks on the fire,” said public information officer Jim Schwarber.

Five structures have been confirmed as lost to the fire including one outbuilding in the Kenai Keys and four recreational cabins.

Other cabins in the path of the fire including the Moose Creek cabin and the privately owned Alaska Wilderness Lodge — though Schwarber said the time it would take the wildfire to potentially reach those cabins, is weather dependent.

Fire crews are looking three days ahead and have contacted people who have private landholdings along the north eastern edge of the fire including the Alaska Wilderness Lodge and residences on Caribou Island, Schwarber said.

Before the damp weather moved in, the fire had been growing significantly in the southeast, Schwarber said.

It burned past Pipe Creek Cabin, Moose Creek Sauna area and is currently approaching Taylor Cabin, Andrew Berg Cabin and Lake Emma Cabin — firefighters are in the area working to protect the cabins from being burned, Schwarber said.

Firefighters have not done any fire mitigation efforts on the eastern edge of the fire, which is burning further into the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Refuge, aside from structure protection, Schwarber said.

The areas that could be under threat if the weather changes would take fewer people to protect than Funny River Road, he 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 number one 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 an 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.”

A community meeting has been scheduled at the Funny River Community Center, 35850 Pioneer Access Road, at 7 p.m. Wednesday. 

The open burn closures for the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage are still in effect acccording to an Alaska Department of Natural Resources — Division of Forestry, media release. 

So far this season, according to the release, 179 human caused fires have burned a total of 185,898 acres, compared to one lightning fire burning six acres. 

 

Updated at 8:35 p.m. Tuesday: 

After several days of fighting to keep the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire from burning homes in communities along the Sterling Highway and Funny River Road, a light rain fell on the windy, dry Kenai Peninsula Tuesday, showering evacuees who were told they could return home.

Five structures have been lost to the fire, according to the Alaska Interagency Management Team, one private cabin, one Department of Natural Resources Cabin — Wally’s Cabin, two natural conservatory cabins and one outbuilding in the Kenai Keys neighborhood where the more than 285 square mile fire jumped the Kenai River Sunday — prompting an evacuation along Funny River Road and an advisory for Kenai Keys residents.

The evacuation of Funny River Road was lifted by 9 a.m. Tuesday as was the evacuation advisory for residents on Kenai Keys Road and Fueding Lane, said Kenai Peninsula Borough spokesperson Brenda Ahlberg.

While the light rain helped firefighters, crews need at least three days of steady rain for the water to have a major impact on the fire, said Rob Allen, incident commander.

Rob Porter, firefighter with Kachemak Emergency Services crew from Homer, worked steadily Tuesday as he walked along Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land. Occasionally he crouched to run his hand along the ground, feeling for hot spots. At other moments he used a hoe to dig into smoldering piles in the blackened woods just south of Funny River Road, scattering the spots until they stopped smoking.

Porter echoed Allen’s assessment of the rain.

“The rain helped calm people but it didn’t really rain enough to put the fire out or have any significant, appreciable effect,” he said.

But, while the rain has not stopped the fire — it has allowed firefighters the chance to pull back and focus on fuel reduction, or cleaning, putting out smoldering spots and burning brush piles in areas where the wildfire has already burned.

Firefighters made progress extending containment lines on the west side of the fire in Kasilof and along the Sterling Highway, according to a management team media release. Burnout operations, or burning to remove fuel from the line of a potential fire outbreak, were also completed along the northern edge of the fire near Funny River Road.

The process of reducing fuel for potential fires could take awhile.

“This is what actually takes so long,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough health and safety officer Brad Nelson. “You put the initial fire line out, you get it contained and everything, then you’re forever doing the fuel reduction.”

The cleaning, or mopping up, helps move the fire fighting efforts from defensive to offensive, said Rick Thompson, a division supervisor covering an area of the wildfire that burned directly south of Funny River Road.

Thompson, who worked Tuesday with a crew of about 100 as they cleared a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge-built fire break near Mile 9 of Funny River Road, said as long as homes were not being threatened — the wildfire would probably continue to burn east and further into the 1.92 million acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Managers estimate that the fire is about 30 percent contained, according the media release. However, managers are not aiming to put the fire out — rather to keep them from burning homes, Thompson said.

“We don’t fight fires, we herd fires,” he said. “It’s good for the habitat, good for the wildlife, good for the ecosystem.”

 

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  Central Emergency Services firefighter Jake Lamphier lights a small brush pile on fire as his crew works to clear potential fuel from a fire line on Funny River Road Tuesday May 27, 2014 in Soldotna, Alaska. Nearly 700 firefighters and support personnel travelled to the Kenai Peninsula to keep the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire from overtaking communities in the area. The most recent maps show the fire to have burned 182,209, or 285 square miles, of Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Refuge land.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Central Emergency Services firefighter Jake Lamphier lights a small brush pile on fire as his crew works to clear potential fuel from a fire line on Funny River Road Tuesday May 27, 2014 in Soldotna, Alaska. Nearly 700 firefighters and support personnel travelled to the Kenai Peninsula to keep the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire from overtaking communities in the area. The most recent maps show the fire to have burned 182,209, or 285 square miles, of Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Refuge land.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  Rob Porter, firefighter for Kachemak Emergency Services works to clear a line about 100 feet into a fire line on Funny River Road Tuesday May 27, 2014 in Soldotna, Alaska. Residents who were evacuated from the area have been allowed to return and firefighters are working to put out smoldering piles and burn potential fuel sources to lessen the chance of a hot spot turning into a fire. The area, near mile 9 of Funny River Road, was caught in the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire which has burned 182,209 acres of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Rob Porter, firefighter for Kachemak Emergency Services works to clear a line about 100 feet into a fire line on Funny River Road Tuesday May 27, 2014 in Soldotna, Alaska. Residents who were evacuated from the area have been allowed to return and firefighters are working to put out smoldering piles and burn potential fuel sources to lessen the chance of a hot spot turning into a fire. The area, near mile 9 of Funny River Road, was caught in the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire which has burned 182,209 acres of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land.

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