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Funny River Fire continues into third day

Smoke from a 20,000 acre wildfire looms over Ski Hill Road south of Soldotna. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)
Smoke from a 20,000 acre wildfire looms over Ski Hill Road south of Soldotna. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The fire that started near Funny River Monday is still going strong. The fire has consumed more than 44,000 acres.

By Wednesday afternoon, more than 200 firefighters had been sent in to control the blaze. Even though the size of the fire is now more than 30 square miles, it’s still contained within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and so very little property was being threatened.

The fire is being attacked hardest on its northern flank, closer to residential areas in Funny River and Kasilof. It’s spreading south and east into unpopulated parts of the Refuge.

Crews are using water almost exclusively to fight the fire. Doug Newbould is the Fire Management Officer on the Refuge. He says water is preferred over chemical retardants.

“Fish especially, those are the aquatic resources we’re trying to protect by not using retardant, however, we also understand and are fully supportive of the policy and the and the practices of protecting communities. If you have to use retardant, if that’s the best tool at your disposal or even a last resort sometimes, then yeah, use retardant.”

Newbould says the Refuge signed off on very limited use of retardant Tuesday, just enough to keep the fire from damaging the historic Nurses Cabin.

Extremely dry weather, high winds and low humidity proved the perfect mix for creating such a big wildfire. And Newbould says that if life and property aren’t threatened, a fire in the Refuge can have some positive benefits. But it really depends on the cause. He says they’re not sure yet exactly what started this fire, but it was likely man-made.

“Fire is an ecosystem process. And when it’s natural, we like to support it and use it where we can to accomplish resource objectives, but our only objectives on this fire are protecting communities and keeping the fire within the Refuge boundaries.”

The state division of Forestry says that recent efforts to clear beetle-kill spruce from the Refuge have removed fuel that could have made the fire spread farther and faster. Forestry spokesperson Andy Alexandrou says it’s not time to relax yet, though. Crews worked early Wednesday morning to keep the fire from jumping Funny River Road.

“We’re trying to keep that road open. We do suggest that you use extra caution as you’re driving around in that area between miles 5 and 8 (of Funny River Road). There is a fair amount of equipment there, people walking and working, staging for apparatus, so use a little extra caution as you pass through there.”

He says the incident management teams that arrived Wednesday morning will be completely set up and able to get more information out Thursday.

As the fire continues to burn, air quality is becoming a big concern. The Department of Environmental Conservation still has an air quality advisory in effect. The strong northerly winds that had been sending the smoke to the southern peninsula have calmed down, and now most of that smoke has settled between Sterling and Kenai, forcing Central Peninsula Hospital to stop surgical operations Wednesday afternoon, as a precaution to make sure air handlers were working properly.

As the fire speads, questions about possible evacuations from Funny River to Kasilof abound, and at Tuesday night’s Borough Assembly meeting, Borough Emergency Management Director Scott Walden explained how those decisions are made.

“In a situation such as this, Department of Natural Resources,  (Division of) Forestry would be the ones to order an evacuation, if necessary.Our job would be to develop plans to put in place with Forestry and the State Troopers,” Walden said.

The Borough has a hotline set up to field evacuation questions and other general questions about the fire. That number is 714-2495.

Community meetings are scheduled for 6 p.m. in Funny River and Kasilof. Locations will be announced later.

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