Rain helping Funny River firefighters

After several days of fighting to keep the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire from burning homes in communities along the Sterling Highway and Funny River Road, a light rain fell on the windy, dry Kenai Peninsula Tuesday and Wednesday, showering evacuees who were told they could return home.

Five structures have been lost to the fire, according to the Alaska Interagency Management Team: one private cabin, one Department of Natural Resources Cabin — Wally’s Cabin, two cabins believed to be Nature Conservancy cabins and one outbuilding in the Kenai Keys neighborhood where the more than 285-square-mile fire jumped the Kenai River Sunday — prompting an evacuation along Funny River Road and an advisory for Kenai Keys residents. The Lower Skilak Lake Campground remains closed.

The evacuation of Funny River Road was lifted by 9 a.m. Tuesday as was the evacuation advisory for residents on Kenai Keys Road and Fueding Lane, said Kenai Peninsula Borough spokesperson Brenda Ahlberg.

In Homer, there had been concerns last week that reports of smoke and haze would reduce visitor numbers for the traditional start of the summer tourist season, particularly after Anchorage media did stories about peninsula smoke and suggesting alternative, northern weekend destinations. The Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center sent out an email blast to members telling them to direct visitors to the chamber’s Homer Harbor webcam at homerwebcam.org.

 “We got a lot of calls this weekend about the smoke,” chamber executive director Jim Lavrakas told the Homer City Council on Monday. “People wanted to know what it was like in Homer. We just sent them to the webcam. Homer was clear.”

As it turned out, a southerly wind last Friday afternoon blew smoke north, breaking up a morning inversion layer and making the Memorial Day weekend on the lower Kenai Peninsula generally smoke free. 

A band of haze did obscure views of the Kenai Mountains. 

The National Weather Service last week forecasted areas of smoke for all of Southcentral Alaska. Concentrations of smoke can be affected by wind patterns, cold-air inversions in the late evening and early morning, and the wildfire itself. 

Last Thursday, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health and Human Services issued air-quality advisories for all of Southcentral Alaska. For Anchorage and Kenai, the advisory was in effect until Tuesday, with air quality varying between good and unhealthy. In the Matanuska-Susistna Borough, air quality was forecast as unhealthy to hazardous until current fires were put out.

Two power outages over the weekend in Homer were not related to the fire. A 20-minute outage at about 8:20 a.m. Saturday knocked out power to 800 customers in the Diamond Ridge area, said Homer Electric Association spokesperson Joe Gallagher. That was caused by frequency problems with the Bradley Lake powerline. An unknown problem caused power to go out at about 8 a.m. Sunday along the Sterling Highway to the end of the Homer Spit. Power was restored at 9:10 a.m.

HEA did de-energize one of two 115-volt transmission lines near Mile 107 Sterling Highway. An overhead flight showed the fire burned under that powerline, but did not appear to damage it, Gallagher said. The fire burned through grass and low brush.

“There’s good right-of-way clearing there,” he said.

The transmission line is about 80 feet off the ground and made of steel wrapped in aluminum, called “aluminum steel reinforced cable.” The fire did not get up into the line or damage supporting poles. As a precaution, the line has been kept de-energized, but may be put back on line today if fire officials give the go-ahead. 

While the light rain helped firefighters, crews need at least three days of steady rain for the water to have a major impact on the fire, said Rob Allen, incident commander.

Rob Porter, one of six firefighters with a Kachemak Emergency Services crew from Homer, worked steadily Tuesday as he walked along Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land. Occasionally he crouched to run his hand along the ground, feeling for hot spots. At other moments he used a hoe to dig into smoldering piles in the blackened woods just south of Funny River Road, scattering the spots until they stopped smoking.

Porter echoed Allen’s assessment of the rain.

“The rain helped calm people but it didn’t really rain enough to put the fire out or have any significant, appreciable effect,” he said.

But, while the rain has not stopped the fire, it has allowed firefighters the chance to pull back and focus on fuel reduction, or cleaning, putting out smoldering spots and burning brush piles in areas where the wildfire has already burned.

Firefighters made progress extending containment lines on the west side of the fire in Kasilof and along the Sterling Highway, according to a management team media release. Burnout operations, or burning to remove fuel from the line of a potential fire outbreak, also were completed along the northern edge of the fire near Funny River Road.

The process of reducing fuel for potential fires could take awhile.

“This is what actually takes so long,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough health and safety officer Brad Nelson. “You put the initial fire line out, you get it contained and everything, then you’re forever doing the fuel reduction.”

The cleaning, or mopping up, helps move the fire fighting efforts from defensive to offensive, said Rick Thompson, a division supervisor covering an area of the wildfire that burned directly south of Funny River Road.

Thompson, who worked Tuesday with a crew of about 100 as they cleared a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge-built fire break near Mile 9 Funny River Road, said as long as homes were not being threatened, the wildfire would probably continue to burn east and further into the 1.92-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Managers estimate that the fire is about 30 percent contained, and is about 183,000 acres, according to a Wednesday media release. The fire spreads from the north shore of Tustumena Lake almost to the south shore of Skilak Lake. However, managers are not aiming to put the fire out — rather to keep it from burning homes, Thompson said.

“We don’t fight fires, we herd fires,” he said. “It’s good for the habitat, good for the wildlife, good for the ecosystem.”

Rashah McChesney is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com. Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this story. He can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.