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As Funny River evacuations lifted, investigators seek public’s insight into cause

By KTVA CBS 11 News 2:20 PM May 30, 2014
KASILOF –

Update, 5/30

The fire is estimated at 193,243 acres with 46 percent containment, according to the Division of Forestry.

The Lower Skilak Lake Campground and boat launch are now open, but the burn ban for the Kenai Peninsula remains in effect for federal, state and private lands, according to the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team. Officials say they will make an announcement when it is lifted.

Update, 5/29

The Funny River fire has grown to more than 192,000 acres and is 46 percent contained, according to the Division of Forestry.

While cooler temperatures and rain have helped slow the fire’s spread, forestry officials said it continues to threaten two cabins on the eastern shore of Tustumena Lake. The Lower Skilak Lake campground, closed due to fire danger May 25, is set to reopen Thursday at noon, according to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

More than 750 firefighters are fighting the Funny River fire, and structure protection continues around a private allotment and lodge on Skilak Lake.

Update, 5/28

Officials are asking for help from the public to determine the cause of the Funny River fire.

The fire, which has burned more than 183,000 acres, was discovered around 4 p.m. on May 19 on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge along the Woodcut Road near Mile 6.5 of the Funny River Road. Although investigators believe the fire was human-triggered, it “was not the result of an abandoned campfire,” said the U.S. Department of Interior in a statement.

Authorities ask people with information about the fire cause or people or vehicles in the area the afternoon of May 19 to call Alaska State Troopers at 262-4453.

The fire is still at 30 percent containment, but all remaining evacuation advisories have been lifted for areas near the fire, according to the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team.

The Lower Skilak Lake Campground remains off limits until further notice. Despite the recent rain, burn closures for all of the Kenai Peninsula are still in effect, said the state’s Department of Natural Resources in a statement.

“A significant amount of rain fall would be needed before forestry and fire officials would consider declaring the fire out,” the DNR wrote.

The wet, cool weather, however, did enable firefighters to switch from offense to defense for the first time in nine days.

Crews were able to reinforce containment lines on the west side of the fire in the Kasilof and Sterling Highway areas, as well as in the Funny River Road area, said the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team. Progress was also made with the containment line on the north side of Torpedo Lake.

One outbuilding and four limited-access recreation cabins were destroyed by the fire, officials said. The owners were notified by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. More than 700 firefighters continue to work to keep the blaze away from populated places.

A community meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight at the Funny River Community Center to share information with residents and answer questions.

So far this season, there have been more than 170 human-caused fires in Alaska that have burned 185,000-plus acres, forestry officials say.

Update, 5/27

The Funny River Road, Kenai Keys and Feuding Lane evacuations was canceled Tuesday morning, according to a statement from the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

While an evacuation advisory remains in effect and residents should remain ready to evacuate again, borough officials said they’re now free to return to their homes after the Funny River wildfire inched dangerously close over the weekend. Emergency shelters set up by the American Red Cross of Alaska at Redoubt and Sterling Elementary School have closed, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Cathleen Renney is one of thousands of people who live on Funny River Road and evacuated Sunday.

“I surprised myself, I thought I’d be a lot tougher than that,” she said. “I didn’t cry or nothing, I just — I was worried.”

Renney says she was prepared because she’s been through this before. Several years ago, another wildlife spread close to Browns Lake near her home.

The state’s Division of Forestry said this wildfire has scorched more than 182,000 acres and remains at 30 percent containment.

But the worst may be over. Rain fell earlier in the day and fire officials say that’s helping slow the fire. A continuation of wet weather is forecast.

Help to residents is also continuing. American Red Cross staff plan to go door-to-door, visiting Funny River Road residents Wednesday at 10 a.m. They will offer food, water, bug spray, eyewash and fire preparedness information, the organization said.

Update, 5/26

The Funny River fire has now covered more than 176,000 acres and is about 30 percent contained, according to state forestry officials.

A week after the blaze was first reported, more than 650 firefighters from across Alaska, the Lower 48 and Canada battled the blaze alongside two Alaska Air National Guard Black Hawk helicopters. According to the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team, spotting was seen crossing the Kenai River about a half mile ahead of the blaze Sunday night, but active suppression stopped the wildfire from taking hold.

The fire continues to spread northeast toward Skilak Lake Road. After both the Funny River and Lower Skilak Lake areas were evacuated Sunday, firefighters say an evacuation readiness alert remains in effect for Kenai Keys Subdivision and Feuding Lane residents. An evacuation advisory for Kasilof residents living on the east side of the Sterling Highway in between mile marker 103 and the Kasilof River was lifted Monday afternoon.

Kasilof resident Andie Bock packed up her family and what she could of her cake business when the advisory was issued.

“Your home is your life,” she said. “To lose it is essentially, I feel like, losing a family member.”

Bock and her family kept a close eye on the fire and returned home Sunday night. She says she’s prepared to leave again if necessary.

“I’m a little on edge, but I’m comfortable … with being home now,” Bock said. “I still know at any moment it can turn, but I’m prepared to just put the kids in the car and go — there is no grabbing anything anymore.”

After opening a temporary shelter at Redoubt Elementary School Sunday, the American Red Cross of Alaska has opened a second emergency shelter at Sterling Elementary School. The shelter offers food and drink and a safe place to stay for Sterling, Kenai Keys and Funny River residents impacted by the fire, according to a Red Cross statement Monday afternoon.

Alaskans continue to open their hearts to the people affected by the wildfire.

“When the going gets tough, we all stick together and we’re all there for each other,” said Molly Poland, owner of Hooligans Lodging and Saloon in Soldotna. “That’s what a small community is about.”

Hooligans has opened up their space to evacuees. They have about 125 people and around 30 animals staying with them free of charge.

“There are so many people in this community that have helped help,” Poland said. “It’s not just me; our entire community is amazing.”

Officials are hoping some potential rain on Tuesday will slow the fire activity so residents can return home.

“I want to know from the crews out there and the people working — is there more that we could be thinking about in the future, because this is early for the fire season,” said Sen. Mark Begich. “Not only for Alaska, but for around the country. And I want to make sure we’re equipping these folks the right way and they have what they need to really combat these fires.”

Funny River Fire Incident Command Post: 907-714-2484

Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management Wildfire Hotline: 907-714-2495

Update: 9:15 p.m. 5/25

The Kenai Peninsula Borough issued an evacuation advisory for the end of Feuding Lane through to the end of Kenai Keys Road. Homeowners are being asked to prepare in the event of an evacuation order.

The Red Cross has opened a temporary shelter at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna.

Residents are being told to bring the following items to the shelter:

  • Prescriptions and emergency medications
  • Foods that meet unusual dietary requirements
  • Extra clothing, pillows, blankets, hygiene supplies and other comfort items
  • Supplies needed for children and infants, such as diapers, formula and toys
  • Special items for family members who are elderly or disabled

They should also try to contact their relatives to let them know where they are and how they are doing

Update: 4:30 p.m. 5/25

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has issued an immediate evacuation order to homeowners living on both sides of Funny River from Mile 7 to Fisherman’s Road.

They are asking people to check in at the Soldotna Sports Center.

Update: 3:30 p.m. 5/25

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has extended the evacuation notice to Funny River Road mile 11 to the end of the road.

Update: 2:50 p.m. 5/25

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has issued an evacuation notice  for people living on Rabbit Run Road to Tachick Avenue. Homeowners are being notified by rapid notify, door-to-door and updated by radio.

The evacuation is a precautionary measure due to the dense, black spruce.

Update: 2:00 p.m 5/25

The Alaska Division of Forestry reports smoke from the Funny River fire is being seen in the Copper River Valley and Tok.

Information about current smoke conditions is available from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Update: 9:15 a.m. 5/25

The Alaska Division of Forestry says as of Sunday morning the Funny River Fire is at 123,649 acres with 20 percent containment.

Emergency Services has expanded the Evacuation Watch for the Pollard Loop Subdivision area to include the east side of the Sterling Highway to Funny River Road, and the south side of Funny River Road.

This advisory encourages residents to prepare in case they may need to leave their homes.

Gov. Sean Parnell is expected to visit the area today and attend a 1:30 p.m. media briefing at the Incident Command Post at Skyview School in Soldotna.

Update: 12:05 p.m. 5/24

According to the Alaska Division of Forestry as of Saturday morning the Funny River fire is now at 96,584 acres, with only 20 percent containment.

More than 400 fire fighters are working on the blaze, along with fire suppression efforts that include five helicopters and four CL215 water scooping air tankers from Canada.

An evacuation watch from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Community Emergency Services remains in effect for the Pollard Loop Subdivision area.

Update: 9:15 a.m 5/24

About an hour after being issued the evacuation order for people living on the eastern side of the Sterling Highway was lifted by the Division of Forestry.

According to the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service the Funny River fire  is 78,213 acres in size and is 20% contained.

Update: 12 a.m. 5/24 

An evacuation order has been issued for the eastern side of the Sterling Highway from Miles 103 to 105, said Michelle Weston with the state Division of Forestry.

Update, 5/23

Kasilof’s Pollard Subdivision was placed under evacuation advisory as the Funny River wildfire burned about a mile away Friday afternoon, state forestry officials said. According to the fire’s incident command post, winds are pushing the flames away from the subdivision but firefighters want residents to be prepared in case the winds change direction.

As of 10:30 a.m. Friday morning, the Alaska Division of Forestry estimates the fire now covers 67,084 acres with only 15 percent contained. According to the Bureau of Land Management, crews are working to secure a line south along the fire’s western flank towards Cole Creek Lake.

Structure protection is in place in the Bear Creek Subdivision, where the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team said 10 structures were threatened Friday morning. Smokejumpers were dispatched to help protect buildings in the neighborhood and a fire crew from Oregon is also responding to the area, according to the incident management team.

Original story

Most of the wildfire is still reportedly contained within the boundaries of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Currently, 374 personnel are working on the fire. Officials say they expect 400 to 500 total this weekend.

The human-triggered fire has scorched more than 44,000 acres so far. Brad Nelson, a safety officer with Central Emergency Services, said 150 personnel are fighting the blaze on the ground and aerial operations are set to ramp up Thursday. Hotshot crews from the Lower 48, along with two Canadair CL-215 firefighting aircraft, are also responding to beat back the flames.

Wednesday night, crews worked to keep the wildfire from jumping Funny River Road as it continued to spread throughout the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. According to the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Type 2 Team, by Thursday morning the fire was burning within four miles of the Pollard Subdivision and within three miles of the Bear Creek Subdivision.

Kenai Peninsula Borough officials said no evacuations are currently planned. Two community meetings are planned Thursday evening; one at 6 p.m. at Tustamena Elementary School in Kasilof and one at 8 p.m. at the Funny River Road Community Center.

 –This is a developing story.

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