By Jenny Neyman
Anyone bemoaning the weekend’s cooler temperatures and cloudy skies wasn’t sitting in the Card Street Fire public information meeting at the Sterling Community Center on Sunday afternoon.
As Bob Albee, Incident Commander for Team III out of Washington, told the crowd the break from the hot, dry weather of last week has helped firefighters make progress on the fire, nearly completing a containment line in the Skilak Lake area, on the northeast flank of the fire.
“I really don’t think we had any fire growth yesterday, and I’m not sure if we’re going to have any fire growth today,” Albee said.
The fire was holding at 7,657 acres, or just about 12 square miles, with the active burning toward the east in the Skilak area. The west end of the fire that had threatened homes and destroyed 11 structures in the Feuding Lane and Kenai Keys areas continued to be calm, allowing crews time to mop up hot spots.
“There are some smokes out there in this west end that people are going to see, and we’re going to get to them, but our priority is to work from the outside in and around the structures first,” Albee said.
Stewart Turner, Team III fire behavior analyst, said that the cooler, more humid conditions over the weekend dampened fire activity. It’s mostly creeping in the ground and smoldering in big fuels. The fire is still hot enough to cause trees to combust, but the ground surface has moistened a little with the recent higher humidity, so when trees do torch, the embers they throw off aren’t sparking new spot fires.
But the duff layer below the surface is still incredibly dry, and as the weather heats up, so will fire activity.
“When we get that sunshine back, lower the humidity, increase the temperatures, when that tree torches and throws those embers out then it will start to spread again. That’s what’s going to cause problems in future until this thing’s wrapped up, contained and put to bed. So, what you’re all looking for is rain,” Turner said.
And not just an afternoon sprinkle here or a day of rain there. It’ll take what’s called a season-ender event, when the dominant weather pattern changes from June and July’s typically dry trend, to fall’s rainier pattern.
“When is that going to happen? It’s very difficult to tell because this year is so abnormal,” Turner said.
Abnormal weather is a big part of the problem this fire season, exacerbating human-caused wildfires, like the Card Street Fire, and causing others, like the Juneau Lake and Stetson Creek fires burning near Cooper Landing that were sparked by a rare occurrence of dry lightning Tuesday night.
The winter was unusually dry and warm, and spring didn’t bring much moisture, either. And not just on the Kenai Peninsula, said Fire Information Officer Terry Anderson, with the Alaska Division of Forestry. Similar conditions have created the situation Alaska is facing now.
“We’re really under siege with a lot of fires going. We kind of think of this as the beginning of a really bad situation statewide,” Turner said.
Particularly under those conditions, when a large blaze gets going, like the Card Street Fire, or last year’s Funny River Fire, it tends to keep on going. Hopefully, the Card Street Fire won’t make another run toward neighborhoods, but residents should expect it to be in the general neighborhood for some time to come.
“Sometimes it takes a month, two months, three months, for fires of this nature, large fires, to go out. Deep duff, slow burning, continual smoldering happens on peat fires, and that’s what we have here. So watch your kids, watch ash pits, be leery of that because there can be hot spots even into next year on large fires,” Anderson said.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management has created a Web page to consolidate fire information. That can be found at kpboem.blogspot.com. And the borough’s fire information phone line is still staffed daily. Call 714-2495.