Monthly Archives: May 2014

Keeping home fires not burning — Residents wait out Funny River Fire evacuations

Photo by Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Horse Trail Fire burning on the south side of the Kenai River near the mouth of Skilak Lake intensifies due to gusty winds Monday afternoon.

Photo by Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Horse Trail Fire burning on the south side of the Kenai River near the mouth of Skilak Lake intensifies due to gusty winds Monday afternoon.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

This might just be the first Memorial Day weekend on record where residents of the central Kenai Peninsula universally crossed their fingers for rain. Anything to help stop the growing, glowing beast of a wildfire that has devoured over 189,000 acres since starting May 19 just south of Mile 7 Funny River Road, threatening homes in areas of Kasilof, Funny River, Tustumena Lake and the Kenai Keys subdivision along the Kenai River in Sterling.

The kickoff of summer is for fires, sure — of the grilling variety. The long weekend is perfect for puttering with home and yardwork, not working frantically to thin trees, install soaker hoses and pack up everything of irreplaceable value. It’s for going camping, inevitably enduring increased traffic to get there, but in the pursuit of recreation, not evacuation and public safety. It’s for a little excitement, but not the kind felt by residents worrying whether their homes would be consumed.

“There’s a pretty oppressive knot,” said Marc Berezin, who spent the weekend under an evacuation notice as the western front of the Funny River Horse Trail Fire crept steadily closer to his home off Johns Road near Kasilof. “I have never been so interested in the weather, I will tell you that.”

Weather conditions have governed the blaze, with a long, sunny, dry stretch this spring creating tinderbox forest conditions, and winds gusting daily to 25 mph or more pushing the blaze first south to Tustumena Lake, then west toward Kasilof, then north to Funny River and northeast toward Skilak Lake by way of the Kenai Keys area, and keeping fire personnel — 670 as of Tuesday — and residents on their toes.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Brad Nelson, health and safety officer for Central Emergency Services, and Kris Erikson, public Information Officer for the Division of Forestry, give evacuated Funny River Road residents a fire status update at a meeting at Redoubt Elementary School on Monday.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Brad Nelson, health and safety officer for Central Emergency Services, and Kris Erikson, public Information Officer for the Division of Forestry, give evacuated Funny River Road residents a fire status update at a meeting at Redoubt Elementary School on Monday.

“This is a wind-driven fire, plus you have kind of squirrelly winds coming off Skilak that makes it more complicated. … But we don’t control that, so what we do is deal with it, and they’re ready and they’re putting everything on this (northern) end,” said Kris Eriksen, public information officer with the Division of Forestry, in a meeting Monday to update displaced Funny River residents after an evacuation notice was given Sunday for Mile 7 to the end of Funny River Road. That was on the heels of a brief evacuation of an area of Kasilof residences Friday night, a weekend-long evacuation for a wider swath of the Kasilof area, and another alert issued Sunday for the Kenai Keys area.

Everywhere along the fire’s active and erratic front, it seems, people have been stuck on repeat of the Clash song, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” It’s alternately exhausting and adrenaline inducing — what to take, when to go, where to go and what to do in the meantime?

“It seems so otherworldly, or an out-of-body experience, you know? Like, ‘Is this really happening?’ And my mood’s been real up and down. I get real emotional when I think about all the work we put into building,” said Jeanne Duhan, another resident of the Johns Road area.

Jeanne and Mike Duhan discuss plans for adding soaker hoses to their roof Saturday as the Funny River Horse Trail Fire burned closer to their neighborhood, near Kasilof. They already had sprinklers running in their yard and had filled their canoes with water to use in case burning embers hit their property.

Jeanne and Mike Duhan discuss plans for adding soaker hoses to their roof Saturday as the Funny River Horse Trail Fire burned closer to their neighborhood, near Kasilof. They already had sprinklers running in their yard and had filled their canoes with water to use in case burning embers hit their property.

She and her husband, Mike, built their log cabin and Jeanne’s log music studio themselves, working every summer for eight years to construct the cabins and improve the property.

“I just love it. The whole idea of it burning down just tears me up. It’s such a lovely little place. We did everything ourselves. I’m going to be really sad if all this burns,” she said. “And from nothing of your doing. We have no part in why this is happening. I mean, we have fake candles, that’s how cautious we are. I love candles but my husband’s like, ‘We live in a log home.’ He’s Mr. Safety — we have a fire extinguisher by the door, we have fake candles. He always does the right thing, then to have this happen, it’s such a drag.”

They and their neighbors along the Kasilof front of the fire got ready to leave Friday when the area was put under an evacuation alert. Though the packing process was quick, it wasn’t without its challenges.

“I mean, what do you take?” Duhan said.

There are recommended items like photos and other irreplaceable memorabilia, important documents — be they stored in a computer drive or file folders — pets and associated food and gear, clothes, prescription medication, personal items and the like. Anything left behind should be documented and photographed for insurance purposes. It’s been an exercise in determining priorities.

Mike Duhan marks the Funny River Horse Trail Fire’s progress Saturday on a map set up on the wall of his home near Kasilof. He and his neighbors were under an evacuation alert over the weekend due to encroaching fire activity.

Mike Duhan marks the Funny River Horse Trail Fire’s progress Saturday on a map set up on the wall of his home near Kasilof. He and his neighbors were under an evacuation alert over the weekend due to encroaching fire activity.

For Duhan, a musician and music teacher, that immediately meant her instruments, loading those into a truck right next to the couple’s Bobcat tractor, and it didn’t even occur to her to take the expensive equipment at first.

“My violin’s worth $1,500, which is like chump change compared to the Bobcat. But the violin was my great-great grandfather’s and the Bobcat is a tool. Then the reality started to sink in that we might really lose this place. Then we thought, ‘Well, we might have to build another one.’ So then we starting thinking about tools,” she said. “The rest of it, what do you really need? It’s all replaceable.”

Next door at Marc and Libby Berezin’s, all the irrefutably important life stuff from 32 years of living, raising their kids and working in their home (Libby’s a potter, while Marc runs a computer business from home after retiring from teaching) was gathered first — documents, photos, computers and associated storage drives. After that, stress started amplifying personality dynamics amid the packing process.

“One of us is a lot more nonchalant about what we should pack than the other. And it ain’t me,” Marc Berezin said. “We just bought this wonderful set of knives, and I want to take the knives. She said, ‘Knives? Why are you taking the stupid knives? I know where they have more!’ But I love those knives. I’m taking the damn knives.

“And we each packed a suitcase full of our favorite clothing — not necessarily a cross-section of what we need. I packed sweaters. It’s like three-quarters full of my sweaters, because I have some wonderful, nice sweaters that I love and they’re not replaceable. Fortunately, the fire caught us at one of our rare moments when the laundry was almost all folded and put away. That doesn’t happen very often. It was an amazingly fortuitous coincidence,” he said.

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Taking livestock — Ranchers, mushers face challenges of evacuating animals

Photo courtesy of Jill Garnet. Jill Garnet readies her dog truck in preparation of evacuating her home and kennel in Kasilof, as the Funny River Horse Trail Fire draws near last week. Residents with livestock or lots of animals faced a particular challenge in getting ready to get out of the path of the fire.

Photo courtesy of Jill Garnet. Jill Garnet readies her dog truck in preparation of evacuating her home and kennel in Kasilof, as the Funny River Horse Trail Fire draws near last week. Residents with livestock or lots of animals faced a particular challenge in getting ready to get out of the path of the fire.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

It’s hard enough for people to prepare to evacuate their homes when a wildfire approaches, as has been the case for residents of Kasilof, Funny River and the Kenai Keys area along the Kenai River as the Funny River Fire has torched over 176,000 acres since starting near Mile 6 of Funny River Road on May 19.

It’s even harder when it’s not just things and able-bodied people to worry about, but helpless animals to corral, as is the case for livestock farmers or mushers with dozens of sled dogs in their care.

“Living just south of Johnson Lake in a heavily wooded area, we are trying to stay prepared during this fire. We have 13 sled dogs who live on a fenced 2 acres and are used to running free all day within the enclosure,” said Jill Garnet who, along with her partner, Sean Rice, saw the risk of fire overtaking their kennel after the blaze made a seven-mile run in two hours last week, reaching the shore of nearby Tustumena Lake.

“On Tuesday we spent 10 hours packing up our most vital gear, most of it related to running dogs — carts, sleds and whatnot. We packed up 10 days of dog food, water jugs and our doggie first-aid bag into our dog truck. We packed up some clothes and guns. Important documents like Social Security cards, birth certificates and vehicles titles made the list. We threw in a camp stove and a filled propane tank, too,” she said.

Garnet’s dogs are used to being transported, for training and racing, in a large, multicubbied box attached to the bed of her truck, so moving the dogs shouldn’t be a problem if the time comes.

“Our dog truck, which is big enough to transport our entire team, is now parked facing out, just outside our fence gate attached to our trailer, which is packed up,” she said.

The difficulty isn’t the moving, it’s the act of gathering up her dogs for the move — since all of the dogs are rescues with various social issues. Her dogs are kept with a free run in their enclosures, rather than tethered on chains as is the practice of many mushers. There also is the dilemma of where to take them and how to maintain them once evacuated.

“We aren’t trying to be reactionary or panic, but just smart. Evacuating 13 dogs isn’t something you are going to do just because. Our team is used to a free-run lifestyle, so taking them out of here and staking them on chains would prove extremely stressful for us and them,” she said.

“We have had many offers over these four days for places to go, but none are fenced. I looked into renting construction fencing, 6-by-12 panels out of Anchorage, but they are all rented out in this high season. So we are keeping our eyes open for fenced areas owned by people who may allow us to park inside temporarily as we camp out with the dogs,” she said.

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Rally with Relay for a cure — Annual event offers hope, way to help fight cancer

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Phyllis Swarner snuggles with her cat, Mutto, in her home in Kenai. She will be one of many volunteers and survivors at the Central Peninsula Relay for Life on Friday and Saturday at the Kenai Central High School track.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Phyllis Swarner snuggles with her cat, Mutto, in her home in Kenai. She will be one of many volunteers and survivors at the Central Peninsula Relay for Life on Friday and Saturday at the Kenai Central High School track.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

May 19, 1999, was the worst day of Phyllis Swarner’s life, but also the day it changed for the best.

She was 52 years old, living in Florida, working for the civil service at Eglin Air Force Base. Life was going along just fine. Until it wasn’t.

“I got a phone call at 5 o’clock that morning that my dad had passed away,” she said. He had been sick. Even though it wasn’t entirely a surprise, the grief and sadness were more than enough to leave her reeling.

And yet, then came another call, at 9 a.m., with the results of her recent mammogram. It was merely a routine scan, as there was no history of breast cancer in her family. She felt fine. There was no reason to think anything would be found. But something was — a 2-centimeter lump in her left breast.

“So it was the day that my life changed,” she said.

Still, given her lack of risk factors, her doctor wasn’t overly concerned. It could be benign. Go to the funeral, deal with your dad’s death and we’ll do a biopsy when you get back, she was told. A month later when the biopsy was done, it showed the lump was cancer, and that there was infiltration into the lymph nodes.

“I found out not only was it cancer, but I had a second precancerous condition, as well,” she said.

“When you hear you’ve got cancer you think you’re dead. I don’t care what they say, you just think, ‘Start preparing for your will and your last days, because life’s over, period,’” she said.

But her life, in a way, had just begun again. In 1995 she had attended her 35th high school reunion and reconnected with her classmates from Fairbanks, where she’d begrudgingly spent her childhood.

“I’d hated Alaska growing up,” she said. “Fairbanks was so remote and cold, and I had roots in North Carolina. I was close to my grandparents there, so Fairbanks felt so far away from everyone and isolated at that time. And 50 and 60 below zero is cold weather. So I swore I’d go as far south as I could, and I did, I went to Florida.”

But she was finding herself more and more pulled back to Alaska, particularly to one classmate — Dennis Swarner, who had become an optometrist in Kenai.

“Dennis and I knew each other since the third grade. We have known each other forever. We graduated from high school together. And I’ve never been intimidated by the ‘Dr. Swarner’ part. He was that corny kid I had to put up with in third grade and he hasn’t changed since,” she joked.

But her feelings for him certainly did. They reconnected and stayed in touch. He came to Florida for a conference, looked her up, dropped by, and that was that.

“My life has never been the same since,” she said.

As if long-distance romances aren’t challenging enough, this was about as long a distance as the U.S. offers — Florida to Alaska. He had a practice in Kenai, and she wasn’t too keen on moving back north. Then came the cancer diagnosis and the years-long process of surgery and recovery. That could easily have spelled the end of the relationship. Instead, it was the beginning of Swarner’s new life trajectory.

“Pow, I had cancer, and that put everything in a different perspective,” she said.

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Pebble Partnership fires lawsuit against EPA

By Carey Restino

Homer Tribune

The battle between the developers who want to build a large-scale mine in the Bristol Bay watershed and the federal agency that is expected to issue a ruling to stop them continued last week as the Pebble Partnership filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency.

The partnership seeks an injunction from the courts to stop what it is calling a pre-emptive veto of the proposed Pebble Mine under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

After several years of study, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this spring that it intended to take action protect the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery. The EPAs Watershed Assessment Study concluded that a mine of the scale proposed by the Pebble Partnership would cause irreversible harm to the fishery, even without a major mine failure.

The mine backers, however, say the EPA is overstepping its bounds with the action, setting a dangerous precedent by taking action against a project before any permit applications outlining the mine plans have been filed.

“Simply put, EPA has repeatedly ignored detailed comments that we, the State of Alaska and others have made about this massive federal overreach and continues to advance an unprecedented pre-emptive regulatory action against the Pebble Project that vastly exceeds its Clean Water Act authority,” said Tom Collier, Pebble Partnership CEO in a statement. “If EPA ultimately vetoes Pebble before a development plan is proposed or evaluated through the comprehensive federal and state permitting processes, the precedent established will have significant long-term effects on business investment in this state and throughout the country.”

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Plugged In: Hot shots — fire photos done right (safely)

Photo by Joe Kashi. Smoke from the Funny River Horse Trail Fire creates an eerie scene at Skilak Lake on Monday.

Photo by Joe Kashi. Smoke from the Funny River Horse Trail Fire creates an eerie scene at Skilak Lake on Monday.

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

A frequent reader urged a discussion about taking wildfire photos. That’s certainly an apt topic this week.

There are both practical and technical points to bear in mind if you plan to take photos of this historically large and threatening fire. Your photos may well be long-term memories for yourselves and your children, so it’s sensible to do the job right while staying safe.

Practical points are by far the most important in a potential community catastrophe like this, to this point thankfully averted through the heroic efforts of local, state and federal crews.

  • Find a good vantage point but stay well out of the way. Crews need to work unimpeded by bystanders and undistracted by worries about their safety. Stay out of evacuation zones and out of active firefighting areas. No photo, regardless of its apparent drama, is worth a high risk to anyone’s safety, nor interfering with firefighters and police. The best vantage seems to be north of the fire front and at an angle of about 90 degrees to the direction in which the wind is blowing the smoke column.
  • If you are in the active fire zone, be sure that you have two safe ways out. One of the first things that new pilots are taught is to always, always “have an out.”

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Fire away — quick response, wind keeps Funny River Fire heading south

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter carries a load of water to the Funny River Fire burning to the south of Funny River Road on Monday. The Alaska Division of Forestry deployed a combination of choppers and air tankers to battle the blaze.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter carries a load of water to the Funny River Fire burning to the south of Funny River Road on Monday. The Alaska Division of Forestry deployed a combination of choppers and air tankers to battle the blaze.

Wednesday update: The Funny River Fire expanded to more than 20,000 acres (31.25 square miles) by Wednesday morning, including to the north toward Funny River and the west toward Kasilof.  The blaze came close to Funny River Road on Tuesday night, but was stopped by air support, fire crews on the ground and an existing fuel break, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center early Wednesday morning. Firefighters Wednesday are focusing on securing the north flank of the fire, to the south of Funny River, and the southwest flank, to the east of Kasilof. Smoke that had been blowing south now is significantly affecting Soldotna and Kenai.

 

 

Photo by Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. Convair 580 aircrafts, turbine engine conversions of the earlier Convair 340 piston-powered aircraft, prepare for takeoff Monday evening in Kenai to return to service dropping water on the Funny River Fire. The aircraft are  on loan from Conair, in Canada, a group that converts older aircraft into air tankers.

Photo by Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. Convair 580 aircrafts, turbine engine conversions of the earlier Convair 340 piston-powered aircraft, prepare for takeoff Monday evening in Kenai to return to service dropping water on the Funny River Fire. The aircraft are on loan from Conair, in Canada, a group that converts older aircraft into air tankers.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Windy, dry conditions are ripe for wildfire disaster. But, thus far at least, that disaster has been avoided with a wildfire that broke out Monday afternoon a mere three miles from the Soldotna Airport, and even closer to homes on Funny River Road.

A persisting stretch of unseasonably warm, sunny weather coming before full spring green-up on the central Kenai Peninsula has dehydrated forest conditions from timber to a crispy-crunchy tinder. But luck, it appears, is in the wind — the same 30-mile-per-hour gusts that whipped the fire from 2 acres when it was first reported at about 4:30 p.m. Monday to about 11 square miles Tuesday afternoon, have continued driving the blaze south through uninhabited Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land to the northwest shore of Tustumena Lake.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. The smoke plume from the Funny River Fire could be seen from Soldotna to Kenai and beyond, with smoky conditions reported Tuesday as far south as Kodiak.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. The smoke plume from the Funny River Fire could be seen from Soldotna to Kenai and beyond, with smoky conditions reported Tuesday as far south as Kodiak.

Despite the quick spread and large size of the fire, with billowing, smoky plumes visible throughout Soldotna and Funny River to Kenai, Kasilof and beyond, it still is not threatening any structures, said Andy Alexandrou, public information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, on Tuesday. The Soldotna Airport even remained open to private traffic, though aircraft are restricted within five miles of a wildfire.

“It’s burning away from any homes, there’s no structures threatened, there’s no evacuations in place. It has burned to the northwest shore of Tustumena Lake so it’s butting up against the water and is flanking from there, which makes for a little less hazard for a firefighter to fight a flanking fire versus a head fire. We wouldn’t put firefighters in front of a head fire, that’s way too risky,” Alexandrou said.

Stiff winds whipped up billows of smoke, but also kept the fire heading south into uninhabited Kenai National Wildlife Refuge lands.

Stiff winds whipped up billows of smoke, but also kept the fire heading south into uninhabited Kenai National Wildlife Refuge lands.

The Alaska Division of Forestry is spearheading the response, and had two helicopters dumping buckets of water to cool the perimeter of the fire, as well as two air tankers also dousing the blaze. By Tuesday there were two, 20-person crews on the ground grubbing out firebreaks in the Funny River area and trying to prevent a spread north or west toward inhabited areas. Though the response so far has been successful, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

“There’s nothing light duty about this one. I left here at midnight (Monday) night and got here a few minutes after 8 (Tuesday) morning,” Alexandrou said. “I went home to watch my dog cross her legs one more time before she was able to relieve herself, and I’m very glad of that because I do have carpeting in my home. It’s been very, very busy.”

On Tuesday afternoon a Type-II management team — with representatives from various federal and state agencies — took over control of the fire response, to free up local firefighting personnel should they be needed in another area.

“With that comes some very expertise firefighters. The teams are designed to take over the management of a project fire and relieve the local area the duties of that project fire, so the local area can concentrate on doing patrols and the initial attack if a new fire starts,” Alexandrou said.

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Fire threatens Tyonek, moves to Beluga

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Division of Forestry. Fire nears the village of Tyonek on Tuesday.

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Division of Forestry. Fire nears the village of Tyonek on Tuesday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

A wildfire threatening Tyonek took a turn for Beluga on Tuesday, offering some relief to a community that has been anxiously watching the blaze jump the Chuitna River on the north edge of town, but renewed fear that it might now reach the neighboring community 10 miles away.

“They kind of contain it then it jumps, it flares up over the place. You talk to the firefighters and they say it’s a hard type of fire to deal with because it’s so spotty and so quick,” said Donita Slawson, Tyonek tribal administrator. “It’s been jumping back and forth on the Chuitna River. Once they think they got it under control then it hops somewhere else unexpectedly. I’ve never seen a fire of this magnitude. It’s almost out then it’s like you can just see the fire and flames moving again.”

“It feels like a dream, it really does,” she said — a bad one.

Slawson called 911 to report the fire Monday afternoon, after power flickered in the village and residents went outside to see quickly growing billow of smoke.

The fire was estimated at 10 acres initially, but strong winds helped it spread to 350 acres by Monday evening, and reportedly over 1,000 acres by Wednesday morning.

The Division of Forestry dispatched helicopters and air tankers to work the fire from above, and more than 70 personnel are fighting it on the ground, including help from Central Emergency Services in Nikiski. Even villagers are pitching in, helping clear and strengthen firebreaks. Swanson said Tuesday she was looking out her window and saw two village women working with the crew on a fire truck going past her house.

“Whatever we can do,” she said.

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