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.
The chance of another fire is not far-fetched, given the weather forecast for continued dry, sunny conditions this week, another 30-mph wind warning for the western Kenai Peninsula through 9 p.m. Tuesday, and the demonstration of poor judgment by people.
There is a burn ban in effect but cooking campfires are still allowed, as long as they are contained in a pit, monitored continuously and extinguished completely. But that hasn’t been the case.
“Over at Scout Lake in the approved campfire rings the (patrol) guys were in there over the weekend and found abandoned campfires there. Same thing with firefighters down around Homer finding abandoned campgrounds where they shouldn’t be abandoned,” Alexandrou said.
It isn’t yet known what caused the Funny River Fire, but there’s fair certainty it was human error.
“We do know there was no lightning in the area. We do know that there’s no power lines in that area, where the wind sometimes knocks a power line down and that starts a fire,” Alexandrou said.
The fire started in the vicinity of the Funny River Horse Trail, as well as adjacent to a gravel road used for woodcutting access to the forest. Both the trail and road head south into the woods at about Miles 6 and 7 of Funny River Road. Someone out recreating in the area is the likely source of the fire, Alexandrou said.
“The public at large, if they’re out and about, they need to pay attention. We understand that people want to go out and have a hot dog, make a s’more, eat a black marshmallow, all that kind of stuff. We don’t want to stop that, but folks need to pay attention and to be absolutely certain to put their fires out once they’re done having a good time,” he said.
Neither the horse trail nor the road are particularly popular in the summer, said Sarah Donchi, a 15-year Funny River resident who guides horse expeditions with her Funny River Outfitters. But there are some hikers, campers and hunters who venture out that direction, she said.
“The Funny River Horse Trail doesn’t get much attention. I think people go up there just to explore or hunt. It doesn’t get a whole lot of use in the summer, but it’s been nice weather and people have probably been out there camping,” she said. “Someone was probably camping out there and didn’t put a campfire out, would be my guess.”
Donchi lives out by the Bird Homestead Golf Course, at about Mile 12 Funny River Road, northeast of where the fire started. Luckily the blaze has headed south, but it was still too close to comfort, she said.
“There’s a pretty good fire break from the last fire in that area (the Shanta Creek Fire, a
lightning-caused blaze in June 2009 that burned more than 13,000 acres between Funny River Road and Tustumena Lake), and they were out there with dozers really leveling everything on the Funny River side of the fire,” Donchi said. “It was scary, though. You could see it moving with some speed and we watched it move around to the south of our property and said, ‘We’re going to go hook up the horse trailer and get ready to move if we have to.’”
Complicating matters for residents like Donchi is that Funny River Road is the only drivable access serving that area.
“The other thing you have to think about out there is that there’s only one way in and one way out, so if the fire compromises the road then nobody’s getting out,” she said.
Traffic on the curvy, usually fairly quiet road was busier than usual Monday, with people checking out the fire. One of the most noticeable onlookers was Soldotna electrician Derek Leichliter, with Legacy Electric, who brought his boom truck to get a better view of the fire above the treetops. He and some friends picked their way from one roadside pullout to another, riding the boom bucket 60 feet up in the air to snap photos of the fire’s spreading plume with their cellphones.
“I knew about the fire, I could see it from my house behind the (Kenai Peninsula) college and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to go do this,’” Leichliter said.
He got the truck — a growling old Ford with surprisingly low miles, a gutsy engine and 60-foot bucket reach — at a Kenai Peninsula Borough auction a year ago for a steal.
“Best 2,500 bucks I’ve spent,” he said, shooting himself up into the air. “This is cool. I’ve never got to use it for this before.”
Matt and Jenna Leaders were following their buddy Leichliter in their vehicle, checking out the fire from various vantage points.
“My parents live right on the river so we’re just trying to see how far it is from their house,” Matt Leadens said. “My dad called me and said the smoke is getting to the river, so we’ve got pumps sitting in the river ready to pump water out, hose his house down, and trees and whatever.”
So far the Leadens don’t have anything immediate to worry about, at least from the Funny River Fire. But they, and other area residents, can’t help but remain on alert until conditions change.
“It’s so dry right now. Scary,” he said.
By late Tuesday afternoon Forestry reported that the fire still was not threatening homes, though was spreading east and west along the north shore of Tustumena Lake, reportedly as far west as near Trail Lake. Smoke from the fire was streaming south, hazing Homer, in particular, and could be seen as far south as Kodiak.