Peninsula homes evacuated as prescribed burn runs wild

Fire came within a mile of homes; 21 blazes around state

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2001

ANCHORAGE The Kenai Lake wildfire came precariously close to homes along the Seward Highway on Wednesday evening, prompting officials to issue an evacuation advisory.

About 20 households at Crown Point, about 25 miles north of Seward and about five miles south of Moose Pass, were affected, said Susan Rutherford, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

The fire, estimated at 2,400 acres, was within about a mile from the closest structure, Rutherford said. The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents at Seward High School.

The blaze began as a prescribed burn of flammable beetle-killed spruce that was supposed to rejuvenate the forest and provide new forage for moose and bears. Predictions for the June 15 10-day burn included six days of rain, which was expected to keep it under control. But the rain never came and a warm wind fanned embers into flames late Monday.

"You really, really hate it when you're the one that lights the match and it gets away," said Mark Black, the boss on a 1,100-acre prescribed burn. "If there are injuries or houses or lives lost, I would have a hard time dealing with myself."

Black, however, said he stands behind his decision to ignite the blaze based on weather forecasts before the burn began.

But frustrated peninsula residents opposed the Forest Service burn plan even before the fire was lit, wary of a month without rain.

"They won't let anybody burn burn piles in their yard, yet they go out and burn 1,000 acres and it gets away from them," said Greg Thrall, a Moose Pass resident.

Dave Bunnell, a national fire expert, said he has not seen any problem with the way the burn was planned and carried out.

"These things aren't undertaken without a tremendous amount of thought and planning," he said.

Smoke cleared for a while in the area of the Kenai Lake fire Wednesday, allowing helicopters to dump buckets of water on the flames. But the smoke returned later, obscuring visibility, Rutherford said. The weather was expected to remain hot and dry, with some winds.

"It's what we call red-flag conditions, which makes a fire hard to put out," Rutherford said.

About 200 firefighters were battling the blaze and more were expected. A Type One incident management team from Boise, Idaho took command of the fire Wednesday. The team is experienced in managing large, complex fires.

Meanwhile, cooler temperatures and higher humidity were helping to slow the spread of two big wildfires in the Interior.

About 320 firefighters were deployed on the Fish Creek Fire, south of Nenana. Crews were continuing work to secure the northern and southern flanks of the fire, which had grown to about 73,300 acres.

"We're doing the best we can under the circumstances," said Pete Buist of the state forestry division.

The Survey Line fire on Fort Wainwright had grown to at least 104,000 acres Wednesday. About 50 firefighters were working to contain a 40-acre portion of that fire burning near private property west of the Wood River.

A second Fort Wainwright fire was burning near the Blair Lakes bombing range facility. That fire, estimated at 1,500 acres, was not considered a threat to resources, said Andy Williams of the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. He said the cause of the blaze was still under investigation.

There were 21 wildfires burning in Alaska on Thursday. Four were staffed and the others were being monitored. So far this year, 272 fires statewide have burned more than 180,000 acres, according to the coordination center.

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