Weather helps stall wildfire

Kenai Peninsula blaze has destroyed about 70 buildings

Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Damp, cooler weather on Monday helped slow a wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula that is burning in a popular recreation area and has destroyed about 70 homes and cabins, and is threatening more.

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Since the fire in the Caribou Hills on the Kenai Peninsula was reported last Tuesday, it has grown to nearly 90 square miles. As of Monday morning, the fire was about 10 percent contained, said Cheryl Larsen, a state fire information officer in Soldotna.

Larsen said about 500 firefighting personnel are assigned to the blaze burning in a popular hunting and snowmobiling area about 80 miles south of Anchorage. The fire also has consumed nearly 80 outbuildings.

Firefighters were trying to take advantage of damper weather Monday, knowing that the fire likely would become more active with drier weather later in the week.

The light rain can only slow the fire, not stop it, Larsen said.

"The weather definitely helped to slow the progress of the fire down, but very little rain actually fell on the fire," she said.

Two firefighters have been injured. Larsen did not know how badly.

Iditarod musher Tim Osmar was injured Thursday while saving his home and his father's place near Ninilchik. Osmar shattered his leg and ankle when the four-wheeler he was riding hit a stump and he was thrown from the machine. His father, 1984 Iditarod champion Dean Osmar, went to help his son. He said the fire was within 10 feet of the cabin when he arrived Friday.

Firefighters helped get Tim Osmar to a hospital in Soldotna where he underwent surgery.

The blaze is carving easily through wide swaths of spruce killed by beetles, and crews are finding it hard to maneuver in the warren of footpaths and gravel roads crisscrossing the hills, said fire information officer Elaine Hall.

The fire threatens another 600 residences and cabins, Hall said. An evacuation order has been in effect since Friday, but fire officials said an unknown number of residents have refused to budge.

"Some folks stayed to protect their houses when they were supposed to evacuate, but we haven't heard about anyone being hurt so far," said Bob Evenson, a fire volunteer.

Crews were trying to take advantage of light rain early Sunday, building a series of fire breaks on the western and northwestern flanks of the fire. Cool, cloudy weather, with highs in the low 60s, was expected for Monday, but winds up to 25 mph could up the fire's momentum, said Sam Albanese, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Many of the homes in the area are used only seasonally.

The blaze began when sparks from a grinder used to sharpen a shovel fell into dry grass.

Evenson said the 16-by-16-foot winter cabin he built with his brothers nearly 30 years ago has probably been destroyed. He had removed everything but a cook stove and a wood stove because bears sometimes explore the unlocked plywood building when no one is around.

"We're over the point of worry, and there's nothing we can do about it right now," Evenson said. "The sad part about losing all the cabins is it's a good place to take the family."

Smaller fires are also burning in the Mat-Su Valley a few dozen miles north of Anchorage.

Alaska's fire season is just getting started. The worst recorded season was 2004, when fires consumed a total of 6.6 million acres, or 10,312 square miles.

In Montana, higher humidity and a change in fuels slowed the progress of a wildfire in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. It moved from heavy timber into a brushier area and continued to burn away from six structures, a mix of commercial property and vacation homes, fire officials said. The fire was not contained.

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