Residents prepare to leave as Funny River fire grows swiftly
KENAI — One by one, planes arrived Thursday to fight the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire that inched closer to homes in Kasilof.
As the threat looms, residents on the Kenai Peninsula have watched warily as the fire grew from its initial reported size of 5 acres to a 63,425-acre behemoth according to the interagency team that has moved into the area to manage the blaze.
As firefighting crews from Delta, the Mat-Su Valley and Fairbanks have joined in efforts to keep the fire away from homes, residents have evacuated animals, prepared contingency plans and stayed with friends and relatives to keep away from the heat.
Now, more than 170 crewmembers are on the ground, most camped at Skyview High School in Soldotna where the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team has set up its operation headquarters.
State and federal agencies including State Parks, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Central Emergency Services and the Alaska State Troopers have helped keep an eye on stray burning slash piles, directed traffic on Funny River Road and the Sterling Highway and giving information to news-hungry locals.
News travels fast in Funny River where word of an informational meeting had spread to many of the residents who were out and about early Thursday, though the official notice had been put up just a few hours previous.
The community, which sits just to the east of the horse trail where the Funny River wildfire was sparked, is at the north end of the massive blaze.
It is one of the two residential areas firefighters have labeled as priority areas to protect since the fire began.
In the community center, tucked away on a gravel road shooting off from main route through the community — Funny River Road — a group of women worked on quilts as a blackened column of smoke loomed over the light blue building.
When asked, they were quick to point out that information about the fire was being posted at the liquor store.
“That’s basically the community center,” one joked as several others burst into laughter.
Log Cabin Liquor, 37133 Funny River Road, is on the largest road in town.
Ken Bulf and Pat Skuza kicked up a cloud of gravel and dust as they pulled into the liquor store parking lot mid-morning Thursday.
The two headed straight for a large A-frame wooden stand where printed updates about the Funny River wildfire have been intermittently stapled to the board since Wednesday afternoon. Though they had already seen a map of the fire’s position online; Skuza said he wanted to see if the sign had an updated copy. Both said the winds, forecasted to pick up Thursday evening to about 15-20 miles per hour, would change course Friday evening and blow southwest.
That would push the fire to the southeast, threatening properties both own near the end of Funny River Road.
“I went out yesterday and built myself a hillybilly fire engine,” Skuza said.
The makeshift fire engine includes a 300-gallon water tank, 50 feet of hose, a water pump and a fire nozzle.
“We’re concerned, but not worried yet,” Skuza said. “(Crews) are jumping on it, but right now they’re still playing catch up. It might take them two days to get control of the thing and it only took two days for it to get as big as it is.”
As Bulf and Skuza speculated about changing wind directions and where the fire would likely burn, Leah Eskelin, park ranger with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stopped to post an updated map.
The three recalled the behavior of the Shanta Creek Fire, a 2009 lightning-caused fire, that burned more than 13,000 acres of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land.
As the Funny River wildfire moves to the east, it has reached the area where the Shanta Creek fire burned and the main body of the fire is arcing in a large “C” shape around the old burn. The 2009 burned land is creating a natural firebreak, firefighters said.
“It’s kind of a weird phenomenon where, sometimes you get to an old burn and it actually speeds it up, sometimes you get to an old burn and it actually slows it down,” said Brad Nelson, Central Emergency Services health and safety information officer. “But, in this case it is slowing it down.”
Terri Kunz, who lives near Mile 9 of Funny River Road, stopped to check the sign as well.
Kunz has already moved many of her animals out of harm’s way — 10 goats, four alpacas, two cats, numerous rabbits and chinchillas are currently housed at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
As Kunz and her daughters Suwannee Chapman, 8, and Sierra Chapman, 11, fed the animals Thursday, the three said they had a plan for leaving their property quickly if the wildfire changed directions.
The family’s 10 dogs will fit into the boat with everyone who needs to cross the Kenai River to leave, Sierra Chapman said.
“Eight of them are dachshunds,” Kunz said, with a grin.
The animals housed at the rodeo grounds will have to leave soon, but Kunz said she has a home for them in Nikiski if needed.
So far, Kunz said she is the only person she knows of who has evacuated their animals to the rodeo grounds. She looked down at one of her goats as she scratched his head.
“I’d rather they were home, but I’d rather they were safe,” she said.
Nelson said the wildfire is 5 percent contained and crews built a defensive line and back-burned along Funny River Road to keep the fire from hopping it to advance toward the Kenai River.
For Kasilof residents, the Funny River wildfire has been a looming threat since it sparked in Funny River and spread more than 10 miles south to Tustumena Lake in less than 24 hours.
The community sits directly west of the main portion of the fire and residents have been blanketed in smoke and ash since late Monday evening. At night, the dark purple sky is illuminated by flashes of orange and yellow as the fire burns through the densely packed wilderness nearby. Kasilof is the other community firefighters have labeled as priority areas to keep safe from the wildfire.
For days, Kasilof resident Angie Christian has watched as the fire creeps closer to her family’s 20-acre property, which borders the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Christian lives in the Pollard Loop area in Kasilof, the subdivision closest to the fire. She knows crews have been working hard to prevent flames from reaching the homes, but she cannot help be fearful of what could happen.
“I hear people joking about homes burning in the Funny River fire on the radio,” she said. “I don’t think it’s funny. We are living this. It’s pretty terrifying.”
Since Tuesday morning the smoke has been so thick her dogs and horses have had difficulty breathing outside. From her house, Christian can see the orange glow of the flames, feel the heat, smell the smoke.
Her fiancé called her from work at noon Tuesday and said she needed to come back home to pack and leave. She packed up family photos and went down the road and stayed at her friend’s house.
Wednesday morning Christian returned home and the smoke was so thick she could not breath outside and needed to wear a mask. Her dogs coughed from the smoke. The air was yellow and burned debris and ash rained down from the sky.
“Something hit me on the head, it was raining flaming, burnt pine needles,” Christian said.
Next door, a family has a partially built home. They’re mid-construction and the structure has no roof. That family sprayed their half-built home with flame retardant foam.
That evening, Christian said she could hear the firefighters working to build a firebreak.
Then, on Wednesday morning, Christian said she and several of the neighbors met to come up with a plan.
Ten families are ready to leave. All of them are packed, some said they would consider taking a canoe and paddling down the Kasilof River if the fire got too close, she said.
“It seems like the fire is coming toward the middle of the road, two miles from where we live. We could get trapped,” she said.
As the fire burns, animals have been running down the road — travelling away from the fire.
Christian said she has seen hares, porcupines and moose running from the fire.
Her own horses have been moved to her sister’s house and Christian stayed with a friend Tuesday night. If the fire gets closer, family in Nikiski will take the horses, she said.
“We’ve been sleeping in shifts at my house,” she said.
More than 200 people, including area Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, attended a meeting at Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof where firefighting officials were presenting information about the rapidly growing blaze.
While the meeting started off cordially, people began to speak out of turn quickly — asking how close the fire could get before homes would be evacuated and wanting a timeline for when the fire would be put out.
Rob Allen, incident commander, said wished he would have had more people on the ground fighting the fire during the first few hours that it burned — but, he said, he is more comfortable now with more than 170 crew and air support on the fire.
The wind was forecasted to pick up Thursday evening to 15-20 miles an hour, according to National Weather Service data. While winds are supposed to slow Friday morning to about 5-10 miles an hour, they’re forecasted to change direction and will be moving from the southwest, that could push the fire to the southeast threatening the Funny River community.
In the north near the origin of the fire, crews have made progress in corralling the fire and keeping it from crossing Funny River Road by creating a bulldozer line, Nelson said.
On the southeast perimeter, the fire is 3 miles from Bear Creek where a group of remote-access cabins sit on Tustumena Lake. Fire crews are working to protect those cabins.
Homer Electric Association spokesperson Joe Gallagher said HEA personnel went up in a helicopter Thursday morning to check out the transmission lines along the Sterling Highway in Kasilof. He said at the closest point south of Reflection Lake, the fire is about two miles east from the lines that run parallel to the highway.
Gallagher said at this point in time, there is no disruption to service operations.
“We are monitoring the situation hour-by-hour and have been in constant communication with the incident management team,” he said. “Right now we have normal operations and will rely on information from the fire agencies and at that point make a decision.”
Residents who have cleaned the areas around their houses can drop loose brush piles at all Kenai Peninsula Borough solid waste sites. No evacuations have been issued.
Dan Balmer, a reporter with Peninsula Clarion, contributed to this story.