Category Archives: Kenai

‘Lucky’ on Lilac Lane — No injuries, deaths in gas explosions after earthquake

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The shell of a home at 1211 Lilac Lane stands beyond the complete wreckage of a home at 1213 Lilac that exploded from a natural gas leak caused by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake Sunday.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The shell of a home at 1211 Lilac Lane stands beyond the complete wreckage of a home at 1213 Lilac that exploded from a natural gas leak caused by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake Sunday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

While the loss of four homes is nothing to be celebrated, residents and emergency responders to natural gas-fueled explosions on Lilac Lane in Kenai following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake early Sunday morning are calling the situation miraculous, since no one was hurt and everyone got out alive.

“The second house, when it exploded, it blew off its foundation, it blew its garage door across the street and then caught the home on fire,” said Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker. “It just happened that nobody was around there. We had crews within a pretty close distance of it. There was a tree out in front of the home that blocked a bunch of the debris from flying too far and injuring anybody. So we were lucky there was nobody in the area at the time of the explosion.”

Residents along Lilac Lane, Cook Inlet View Drive and Wells Way were evacuated early Sunday while emergency responders and utility companies worked around the clock to stop gas leaks in the area. The neighborhood parallels the Kenai Spur Highway on the Cook Inlet bluff side, behind Doyle’s Fuel Service, across the highway from Wildwood Correctional Facility.

Misty Schoendaller lives at 1215 Lilac. She was drifting off to sleep when the earthquake hit at 1:30 a.m. She got dressed, grabbed her cellphone and headed outside.

“About the time I got out the door the house next to mine exploded and knocked me back. And when the explosion happened it was really weird because it was like coming out from the kitchen area, and the front of the house kind of came out and then went back in, and black smoke everywhere. I mean, it was bad. It was real bad,” Schoendaller said.

She called 911 and ran to next door to 1213 to see if she could help. Vinnie Calderon was in the front yard, shouting for his family to get outside. Miraculously, neither he, his fiancée nor the two kids in the house were injured in the explosion.

This home at 1211 Lilac was one of four destroyed by natural gas explosions and fires Sunday following the earthquake. Janice Gottschalk lived there with her fiancé, brother and three kids.

This home at 1211 Lilac was one of four destroyed by natural gas explosions and fires Sunday following the earthquake. Janice Gottschalk lived there with her fiancé, brother and three kids.

Janice Gottschalk lives with her fiancé, brother and three kids at 1211 Lilac, to the left of Calderon.

“About 1:30 a.m. the earthquake hit, and probably about 1:40, 1:45 a.m. I heard my neighbor’s house blow up,” she said. “The gas blew off the roof. They thankfully made it out. And then we were all told probably about five minutes later to evacuate our house, as well,” she said.

Kenai police officers arrived within minutes of the explosion, Schoendaller said.

“There were things on fire outside of the house on the ground and the Kenai police were trying to extinguish it with extinguishers, and it just kept coming back,” she said.

The neighbors piled into an apartment across the street as the Kenai Fire Department worked on Calderon’s house, about a dozen people anxiously waiting for whatever might come next.

By 3 a.m., emergency personnel noticed a strong smell of gas in the area and told neighborhood residents they had to evacuate.

When she left Lilac, Schoendaller expected to come back to her home.

“I didn’t think anything was going to happen with my house because the fire department was here and it looked like they were going to be able to contain it, so nobody thought they were going to lose their homes except that one (that exploded),” she said.

Displaced

An emergency shelter was set up at the Kenai National Guard Armory. Sgt. 1st Class Albert Burns got the phone call from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management.

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Kenai OKs plan for south beach road — City to purchase 7 lots for $1.6 million

Imagery from Kenai Peninsula Borough parcel viewer. The city of Kenai will purchase the highlighted seven lots in order to build a new access road to the south beach of the Kenai River.

Imagery from Kenai Peninsula Borough parcel viewer. The city of Kenai will purchase the highlighted seven lots in order to build a new access road to the south beach of the Kenai River.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

It was not their ideal solution, but members of the Kenai City Council did pass a solution at its Sept. 16 meeting to address the thorny problem of providing better access to the south beach of the mouth of the Kenai River during the July dip-net fishery.

“We have to think outside the box a little bit. This is a little different than normal but I believe it can work, I believe it’s the right solution with the options that were given us and I don’t think we need to delay any further,” said Council Member Tim Navarre, who voted in favor of the city purchasing seven lots off Drag Net Court for the purpose of constructing a beach access road.

The city only needs four of the lots for the road project, but negotiations with ARK Properties LLC resulted in only one deal — all seven or none. The lots include one with a mansion and various outbuildings with a borough assessed value listed at over $1.4 million.

Not liking that option, the city investigated skirting those lots to put in a road, but that placed the path through sensitive wetlands, which was another nonstarter.

So it was back to the purchase option. The city obtained a $1.9 million grant from the state for improved access and upgrade work for the dip-net fishery. The road project is covered under that pot of money, including the $1.6 million purchase price for the seven lots.

But there are a few strings attached. The city intends to sell the lots it doesn’t need for the access road. The state doesn’t want the city using grant money to buy the land then turn around and sell it at a profit, since the purchase price of the lots is below the assessed value.

As City Manager Rick Koch explained, if there is any profit from the sale of the extra lots, the city will be required to return it to the state, where it will go back into the grant and be available for the city to use for other dip-net access and improvement work.

“It’s the same grant money that’s been replenished. And we are able to use it for the same purpose that the grant was extended to the city in the first place.” Koch said.

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Lot lines to discern — Before Kenai could grow, Uncle Sam needed to be in the know

Image courtesy of Shana Loshbaugh. The original townsite map of what is now known as Old Town Kenai was created by surveyor Elliott Pearson, starting in 1951 and revised in 1954. The village of Kenai developed before modern-day subdivision standards came to Alaska. Note that the spit of land seen bottom left has now largely eroded with the crumbling bluff above the mouth of the Kenai River.

Image courtesy of Shana Loshbaugh. The original townsite map of what is now known as Old Town Kenai was created by surveyor Elliott Pearson, starting in 1951 and revised in 1954. The village of Kenai developed before modern-day subdivision standards came to Alaska. Note that the spit of land seen bottom left has now largely eroded with the crumbling bluff above the mouth of the Kenai River.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Joanna Hollier moved to Kenai long before it gained its “Village with a Past, City with a Future” motto. Before it was even a city, when the village’s past was the present. When Old Town Kenai was just Kenai.

“I came here in August of ’46, and there was no roads. I mean, no getting around with cars and what not. So we were more or less out there in old town, or Kenai — it was just called Kenai at that time — was downtown at that time,” she said.

Hollier came to town to work with the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration, and has lived here through the town’s most dramatic period of change, as described by historian Shana Loshbaugh at a meeting of the Kenai Historical Society on Sunday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

“Back in the early part of the 20th century, Kenai was basically an offroad Native village, like so many in Alaska still are,” Loshbaugh said. “It had a lot of Russian influence, the big industry in the area was the canneries. But really very different from what we have today. There were a lot of changes that started about 1940 to 1960, which is really when Kenai morphed from the village to city. As of the time of the beginning of World War II, you can see Kenai was pretty isolated, didn’t have a good port, no roads. The 20th century, however, was slowly coming to Kenai.”

Hollier worked for one of the biggest agents of change in Kenai — aviation. In 1926, the first plane came to Kenai, and the first “airstrip” was established in 1937.

“And basically little planes could land on the road just over here on Overland Drive,” Loshbaugh said.

The village got airmail service in 1930, though by the end of the ’30s mail service stopped because the community was seen as too small, and residents had to go to Kasilof for their mail.

But World War II was brewing, and the federal government saw Alaska as an integral part.

“Now, the war is when the changes really started happening in this area,” Loshbaugh said. “When the United States was not part of the war effort there were a lot of national leaders who really had a premonition that the U.S. was going to get dragged into it and there were also people who recognized the strategic importance of Alaska so they started sending federal resources to Alaska and ramping up for a potential war effort in this area.”

In March 1941, the military reserved a huge chunk of land — two to three square miles — just outside the Kenai village site, from the bluff adjacent to where the Kenai Senior Citizens Center is now, out into the wetlands north of town. In December, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the U.S. officially joined the fight. In 1942, the CAA built a 5,000-foot airstrip in Kenai, which has turned into the airport we have today. It didn’t end up having much role in the war effort, but had a huge role in transforming Kenai.

“It was the war that brought this airfield to Kenai and it was set up to be a major airport that they could use in an emergency situation,” Loshbaugh said. “So that’s basically what Kenai got out of World War II was the airstrip. And when the Air Force and the military wound down and the war ended the airstrip stayed, and by 1945 the descriptions show that the Civil Aeronautics Administration that ran it was one of the major employers in the Village of Kenai.”

Road access was the next big change for the then-little community. In 1946, surveying for the Sterling Highway began, and the road was dedicated in 1950, with the Kenai Spur Highway completed not long after.

“At that point the population of Kenai in the official census in 1950 was 321. That’s less than 10 more than had been 10 years before, so Kenai was still a little bitty place at that point, but things were on the move. Next thing they get electricity,” Loshbaugh said.

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Kenai loosens residency requirement

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

How Kenai must you be in order to have a role in making decisions for the city?

The Kenai City Council on Wednesday redefined its answer in loosening the requirement for serving on the planning and zoning commission to allow up to two of the seven seats to be filled by nonresidents who either own property or a controlling interest in a business in the city.

Making the change to allow nonresidents on the commission involved a philosophical discussion over how much weight to give one’s home address.

Vice Mayor Brian Gabriel said he thinks there’s a large number of Kenai business owners, living outside the city, who would like to serve on the commission.

“There’s many other cities within the state and across the country that do allow nonresidents from their corporate and city boundaries (to serve) on the planning and zoning. They’re invested community, and I don’t think considering their input is a bad thing,” Gabriel said.

Council member Tim Navarre has been a near lifelong Kenai resident, yet serves on various committees outside the city. Where one lives isn’t the only qualification dictating where one’s interests lie, and he thinks the city should be open to the involvement of those who invest here, not just live here.

“I see that the city of Kenai is open for business is willing to involve people because our city wouldn’t be as great as it is if we didn’t have people from all around peninsula that not only work, invest in our city and everything else,” Navarre said.

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Fishing for a smooth season — Dip-net prep starts long before the fish, people show up

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. City of Kenai workers were busy last week preparing for the start of the dip-net fishery Friday. The crowds of dip-netters show up overnight, but the services needed to manage them take considerable time, money and planning to put in place.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. City of Kenai workers were busy last week preparing for the start of the dip-net fishery Friday. The crowds of dip-netters show up overnight, but the services needed to manage them take considerable time, money and planning to put in place.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

As sockeye salmon return to the Kenai River in July, so, too, do crowds of dip-netters seeking to catch their share. But while the people show up overnight, the fishery doesn’t come together that fast. Prep work begins before the first late-run fish hit the fresh water.

Come the 6 a.m. July 10 opening of the Alaska resident dip-net fishery on the Kenai, the place was humming with hundreds of boats, vehicles and people, seeking their share of the tens of thousands of sockeye salmon that pass through the sandy, silty, windy transition of Cook Inlet and the river each day.

“On our busiest day we’ll see up to 15,000 — that’s in boats and on the north beach and south beach,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch. “You think, ‘Gosh, that’s just an incredible number,’ but you think of 600 boats out there during the course of the day, you put four people in a boat, that’s 2,400 people already.”

Kenai has the dubious honor of managing the most popular location of the state’s personal-use dip-net fishery.

“Things have become significantly more routine as it relates to keeping beaches clean, making sure we have enough portable toilets, Dumpsters, parking spaces are well defined, trying to moving people through — those things over the last five to six years we’ve got handle on, being event people. It’s sort of like Wrigley Field and 40,000 of you and your closest friends show up for a few hours. We’ve become event coordinators, and I think our personnel have done a very good job at undertaking those responsibilities, but every year there’s always something new,” Koch said.

Work began far in advance of the Friday opening. On Thursday, the beaches were busy with city workers doing last-minute preparations.

“Restroom cleaning, putting up fence to keep people off the dunes, picking up trash, cleaning up, whatever needs doing,” said Larry Hull, with the Kenai Parks and Rec Department.

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Kenai project a step ahead —  No bluffing: Final feasibility study is furthest erosion work has gotten so far

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For Kenai’s mile-long bluff stabilization project along the mouth of the Kenai River, the easy part will be building the thing. And that’s saying something, because construction will be no easy task — piling giant boulders to armor the toe of the bluff, plus re-sloping and revegetating the bluff face and installing drainage and erosion-control systems throughout.

But compared to the process of getting approval and funding for the project, construction will be a piece of cake. The city has been actively pursuing a fix to the 3-feet-per-year erosion problem for 30 years, and the estimated price tag for the project has risen in that time from a lowball $10 million to the current $43 million.

“So, you think about a century ago there was a football field out here. But you can see here’s the senior center and it’s really riverside property in 2053, and there’s a loss of improvements and properties along here,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, who moderated an open house at city hall May 6 to update the public on the project.

There wasn’t any great news to share — that a construction date had been set, for instance — but there was the good news that progress is being made.

“We will continue to be diligent. I know the council, as I’ve told you, has year after year after year, identified this as number-one priority project … especially since we are slowly moving forward and the Corps is involved in a way that hasn’t happened before,” Koch said.

The city and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently executed a funding agreement to go ahead with a final feasibility study on the project, which will coalesce all previous studies, prepare documentation for National Environmental Policy Act permitting, and come to a final recommendation on whether or not an erosion abatement project should be built. That should be finished in August 2017. And at that point, assuming the conclusion is to build the thing, the process to obtain federal funding will begin, said Dave Martinson, a representative with the Corps.

“Because I’m sure next thing that you’re wondering is, ‘OK, when will something be built? When will construction happen?’ And, to be honest, that is really out of my hands, because we’re at the mercy of a nation that is struggling with a pretty incredible debt, with a project workload that they’re trying to accomplish. So, no offense, but the community of Kenai doesn’t weigh very high, as you can tell, from a national standpoint. … With us doing as much as we can to show the importance of this we’re going to present that argument,” Martinson said.

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Study in patience — Kenai inks funding agreement on bluff erosion final feasibility study

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A section of bluff in Kenai sloughs off into the mouth of the Kenai River. The city and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently ironed out the terms of a cost-share agreement to do a final study on the erosion problem, which could clear the way for a stabilization project to move to the funding phase.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A section of bluff in Kenai sloughs off into the mouth of the Kenai River. The city and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently ironed out the terms of a cost-share agreement to do a final feasibility study on the erosion problem, which could clear the way for a stabilization project to move to the funding phase.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The approval of a cost-share agreement for a final feasibility study between the city of Kenai and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might only be an incremental advance toward someday constructing an erosion abatement project along the mouth of the Kenai River. But it’s a necessary step, nonetheless.

The city had been anticipating the agreement for about a year, and the city council has already provided authorization for the city manager to execute the agreement. When the document was received April 16, City Manager Rick Koch said it didn’t contain any surprises. It calls for a 50/50 split to conduct a final feasibility study on a bluff stabilization project. Koch said the preliminary cost estimate for the study is $227,000 from both the city and the federal government, though the project could cost as much as $637,000 in all. The city will be using funds from a state appropriation toward a bluff stabilization project.

Koch said that the feasibility study essentially coalesces and refreshes the several previous studies the Corps has conducted on the bluff erosion situation, including reports on socio-economic impact, historical and cultural resources in the area and National Environmental Policy Act documentation that supports an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. The Corps also did a feasibility study, “to determine if the value of the areas that are being sort of saved from the erosion exceed the value of the cost of the project. There’s been a technical analysis, which defines the problem and explores solutions to determine if, in fact, the problem can be solved. And the results of that study were that, yes, the problem can be solved,” Koch said.

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