As the Funny River Horse Trail fire raged about 50 miles north of Homer, a long plume of smoke extending out into the Gulf of Alaska blanketed Kachemak Bay earlier this week.
On Wednesday morning, two days after the fire started, the fire had grown to 20,000 acres and burned 10 miles through dry tinder from near Funny River Road, east of Soldotna, to the north shore of Tustumena Lake. The ceiling of the smoke column reached at least 8,000 feet into the sky, with officials reporting flames reaching 125 feet high.
With a fire so big it could start making its own weather, forecasters cannot predict how long smoke will linger over Kachemak Bay during the Memorial Day weekend. A lot depends on if firefighters can contain the fire, how far it spreads and which direction it spreads, said Mike Ottenweller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Anchorage.
“For fires especially, it’s kind of a wait-and-see game,” he said. “It’s one of those things that is extremely difficult to forecast.”
Winds could shift from a northeast to a more northwest flow, Ottenweller said.
That could mean reduced smoke starting on Thursday if the winds shift to the northwest. The forecast calls from partly cloudy today, sunny Friday, and cloudy Saturday, with lows in the 30s and highs in the 60s.
Fire officials have rated the fire danger as extreme, with open burning suspended, including burn barrels. Small, 3-foot diameter campfires are allowed, but should be used with extreme caution. Fires should be in pits on bare soil and with a 10-foot clearance from combustible material such as driftwood. Buckets of water to put out the fire should be on hand.
On Tuesday morning, Homer woke up to a thick haze that caused eyes to water and, for people with respiratory and heart issues, kept them indoors. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation issued an air quality advisory effective through Thursday for the Kenai Peninsula.
Most Homer schools canceled outdoor recess and field trips on Tuesday, said Pegge Erkeneff, a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District spokesperson. McNeil Canyon Elementary School was above the haze and allowed recess on Tuesday. At the last day for most schools on Wednesday, principals made their own call on whether to allow closing day events like outdoor barbecues. West Homer Elementary students stayed indoors all day, while Paul Banks Elementary let students outside for an afternoon picnic. Homer Middle School, Homer High School and McNeil allowed outdoor activities.
“We ask the schools to pay attention. They know what’s going on at their site,” Erkeneff said. “Part of it is standing outside and smelling a lot of smoke.”
Smoke also got into the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center ventilation system and staff were allowed to go home, said visitor center director Marianne Aplin.
South Peninsula Hospital Emergency Room staff had an increase in phone calls from people seeking advice on safe levels of outdoor exposure, said hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro. Homer Medical Clinic also had an increase in phone calls from asthma patients refilling their medications. Ferraro advised people to use the DEC air quality advisory chart to assess smoke pollution levels and guidelines for outdoor activities (see chart, above).
“If someone is experiencing shortness of breath or difficult breathing, they should contact their provider immediately,” Ferraro said.
The DEC classified air quality as between good and unhealthy. Immediately downwind of the fire, air quality is classified as hazardous. “Unhealthy” means that people with respiratory or heart diseases, children and the elderly should avoid any outdoor activity. Everyone else should avoid prolonged exertion. “Hazardous” means everyone should avoid any outdoor exertion and that those at high risk should remain indoors.
Air quality can be estimated by looking at visibility. If visibility is 1.5-2.5 miles, air quality is unhealthy. If .9 to 1.4 miles, air quality is very unhealthy. If .8 miles or less, air quality is hazardous. The National Weather Service reported visibility in Homer between 3 and 7 miles on Tuesday.
What’s bad for Homer may be good for the central peninsula, however. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning with strong north winds on Tuesday.
“That was bad news in terms of air quality, but good news in that it drove it toward Tustumena Lake,” said Pete Buist, a public information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.
The fire spread quickly through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in a long, thin line typical of wind-driven blazes, said Andy Alexandrou, a public information officer for the Division of Forestry. The exact cause of the fire remains under investigation, but officials said it was human caused.
The fire remains most active on the north end, where firefighters are focusing efforts, Buist said. Firefighters also are concerned about the fire’s west flank near Kasilof. If the wind turns from the east or south, it could drive the fire to the Sterling Highway and Kasilof to the west or north to Funny River Road.
“We would just assume it went east to the mountains or southwest along the north side of Tustumena Lake, where all it’s going to do is make better moose habitat,” Buist said.
No structures have been threatened and no evacuation orders have been issued. Erkeneff said firefighting personnel will take over Skyview High School in Soldotna Wednesday and establish their command post in the building.
Although smoke and haze lingered over Homer on Wednesday, it had cleared considerably compared to Tuesday. Ottenweller of the National Weather Service said an inversion layer on Monday night and early Tuesday morning helped trap smoke and compressed it into the lower levels of the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures on Tuesday afternoon that got up to 62 degrees helped break up the inversion layer, allowing winds to mix up the smoke. A sea breeze predicted for Wednesday might have helped mix smoke and push it to the east.
As of Wednesday, about 50 firefighters from the Chena Interagency Hotshots and Gannett Glacier Fire Crew worked on the fire. Kenai Peninsula Borough officials also monitored the situation. Scott Walden, Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management Director, said the borough had an emergency plan in place and would use a reverse 911 system to call targeted areas in the event that an evacuation order is issued.
Four water-scooping planes out of Williams Lake, British Columbia, were expected to arrive Wednesday. The planes are able to pick up water from Tustumena Lake to douse the flames.