Crews control Hoonah wildfire

Christian farming community evacuated

Posted: Sunday, May 01, 2005

A wildfire near Hoonah forced the evacuation Friday evening of about 15 members of a Christian farming community.

Firefighters continued to mop up into Saturday evening, but the fire was contained, said John Baldwin, Hoonah district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. No one was hurt.

"If we get a good night with high humidity, low winds, it will make the whole difference, and tomorrow will be a time to finish it up," Baldwin said Saturday night as a helicopter continued to dump water on the fire.

The fire was intense, said Gary Lebowitz, member of the Mount Bether Bible Center, located next to Game Creek about three miles south of Hoonah.

"We could see some of it coming directly toward us across Game Creek," he said.

Seven men remained at the center to let the farm animals out of the barn, and to prepare to pump water from the creek onto buildings, if need be.

The fire, first reported at about noon Friday near the Whitestone logging camp, was under control by Saturday morning, largely because two TEMSCO helicopters from Juneau almost continuously dumped buckets of water onto it, Baldwin said.

Sealaska Corp., one of the affected landowners, called for one TEMSCO helicopter early Friday afternoon and later that day requested a second aircraft, said Mitch Horton, TEMSCO base manager in Juneau.

The helicopters, flying within 200 feet of the ground, used 180- and 240-gallon buckets of creek water to douse the fire, he said.

The aircraft left Friday evening and returned to Hoonah on Saturday morning, and put in another five or six hours of work, Horton said.

"The majority of the burning was yesterday," he said Saturday. "Today was really catching spot fires as they sprung up."

The Forest Service retained the service of one TEMSCO helicopter Saturday evening.

The fire burned within about 400 acres of lowland bog, scrub, jack pine, hemlock and spruce, Baldwin estimated.

Much of the blaze was in the scrubby undergrowth, but some flames moved through the treetops - "spitting and torching" ahead of the ground fire - helping the fire jump roads, he said.

It was sunny and windy on Friday and Saturday. The National Weather Service's sensors in Hoonah are down for maintenance. Nearby Gustavus and the Sisters Islands reported temperatures in the high 50s and winds of about 25 mph those two days.

Forest Service firefighters from around the Tongass National Forest and the Hoonah Volunteer Fire Department fought the blaze from the ground, using hand tools, chainsaws and backpack water pumps.

Baldwin declined to say how the fire started.

"We haven't done a complete investigation of the origin, so I'm not prepared to say at this time," he said Saturday.

By early evening Friday, the fire had approached to within 300 yards of Game Creek and the Mount Bether Bible Center, observers said.

The Forest Service used a boat to evacuate about 15 women and children. They stayed at the center's apartment in Hoonah and with local families, Lebowitz said.

"The first thing that we saw was the smoke coming from the northeast," he said. The fire "was coming toward us. There was a very stiff wind, exceptional wind. ... It was pretty scary at one point. If the winds had kept up through the night, it would certainly have crossed over (Game Creek) during the night."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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