Kenai wildfire advances on settlements

Blaze 10 percent contained, firemen brace for strong winds

Posted: Friday, May 15, 2009

ANCHORAGE - A wildfire whipped up by a gusty breeze was spreading Thursday toward three small Russian settlements near the scenic coastal town of Homer on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

Vikki Wythe / The Associated Press
Vikki Wythe / The Associated Press

The fire has grown to nearly 2 square miles, threatening the Old Believer communities of Voznesenka, Kachemak Selo and Razdolna, about a five-hour drive from Anchorage. Old Believers are members of a Christian sect that broke from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century.

The blaze was 10 percent contained and fire managers were bracing for stronger winds and a drop in humidity expected later in the day.

"There are no reported injuries, knock on wood," said Division of Forestry spokeswoman Sharon Roesch.

She said each community has about 150 residents, but it's unknown how many people there are heeding an advisory evacuation launched Wednesday for the greater area.

"There are definitely people choosing to stay," she said.

Fire managers say another 20 homes are threatened. These are separate from the Old Believers' communities and lie to the southwest, where the blaze was sparked by a downed power line Tuesday evening.

A team from the Kenai Peninsula headed to the scene early Thursday afternoon to assess the damage. At least two structures have been destroyed, but officials couldn't immediately determine if those were homes or outbuildings.

Part of the challenge for fire crews is that the area is remote, without cell phone reception. Even radio communications are spotty, said John See, a forestry division spokesman.

About 125 firefighters are battling the blaze, and Roesch said that number will double with the pending arrival of additional crews.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at a high school in the coastal town of Homer, 15 miles southwest of the fire.

Red Cross volunteer Frank Keener said several displaced fathers dropped by to say they would be bringing their families there Thursday evening. The men were rattled by their circumstances, Keener said.

"There was shock, just the unknown of the future," he said. "'What will happen? How is my life going to be turned upside down?"'

Homer is located about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage, at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

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