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.
By Jenny Neyman
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.
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.
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.