Homer fire threatens Old Believer villages

OUT OF CONTROL: Most likely a matter of when, not if, structures 15 miles outside of town will burn.

May 13, 2009 

Residents of two Russian Old Believer villages were under evacuation orders Wednesday night as an explosively expanding wildfire east of Homer crept menacingly closer.

The fire began the day at about 70 acres and nearly half contained. But as the sun went down in the smoky sky, the blaze was estimated at more than 700 acres and burning mostly out of control. Firefighters had given up trying to stop it, instead focusing their efforts on evacuating people and protecting homes.

The fire was threatening 20 homes about 15 miles northeast of Homer, Forestry spokesman John See said. The fire could grow to more than 1,000 acres overnight and endanger another 30 homes, he said.

One structure had been confirmed lost late Wednesday, but no injuries had been reported, said Sharon Roesch, fire prevention officer with the Forestry Department.

A massive flare-up fueled by a steady breeze pushed the fire north across East End Road as it sucked up dried grass and black spruce in the afternoon. It was continuing its march north and east toward an area filled with structures and people who were told to find a safe spot to hide until the blaze passed them by.

"They're going to be looking for natural areas, like gravel pits. Some people are talking about evacuating to the beach," said state Division of Forestry spokesman Matt Weaver.

"We're in 100 percent defensive mode right now. Everyone has been pulled off the line. They're working seriously ... to keep the road open and doing structure protection."

Crews were going house to house, helping clear brush where possible and pumping foam retardant onto homes. Most of the fire was burning south of East End Road, although it had crossed in places.

The road was shut at Mile 14, but Alaska State Troopers were allowing westbound travel from points beyond for people to escape -- an evacuation order was in effect for areas east of Mile 16. Some vehicles had left on their own, others with troopers escorts, Roesch said. In one case, flames lapped the road's edge as the vehicles moved through, she said.

Each community in the area -- Voznesenka and Razdolna -- has about 150 people, but it was unclear how many of them had left. A large number were thought to remain, Roesch said.

The Voznesenka School was opened as a sanctuary, according to state fire officials. No one answered the phone there Wednesday.

Voznesenka and Razdolna are two of three small villages of Russian Old Believers at the end of East Road, about 20 miles from Homer. A switchback road cuts from Voznesenka about 600 feet down a bluff to the beach at Kachemak Bay.

In Homer, the Red Cross of Alaska was preparing shelter for as many as 200 people at the town high school, though no one had arrived by early in the evening, spokeswoman Kelly Hurd said.

Residents were advised not to attempt to cross the fire line, Roesch said. People should find a safe place, like the school, to wait out the fire should it approach.

"They need to stay in a safe zone if they are trapped by the fire until the flaming front passes," Roesch said. "Because the flaming front can pass by in a couple of minutes, actually, and then they'll have smoldering and smoke to deal with, but if they try to drive through a flaming front, they could be killed."

The fire was caused by sparks from a downed power line, and by Wednesday, power remained out along East End Road from Mile 17 to its end, said Joe Gallagher, a spokesman for Homer Electric Association.

About 290 customers had been in the dark since about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, when the fire started. The lines were repaired Wednesday afternoon, but power was not flowing, he said.

"It was determined that we would not energize the line due to the fact that there was still a chance of the fire picking back up again," Gallagher said.

After it broke out Tuesday evening, the fire quickly swelled to 65 acres by the end of that night, fueled by dry grass and black spruce to the south of Mile 16 East End Road, near Kachemak Bay State Park.

About 125 local and state firefighters were on scene Wednesday night, and more were on the way. Two eight-person smoke jumper crews were dropped onto the scene Wednesday, and three hand crews were working the fire with two more on the way. Each of those crews has between 16 and 20 firefighters, Roesch said.

Airplane crews continued to drop loads of retardant on the fire through the day, and helicopters were hauling in buckets of water.

But with north winds hitting 15 mph and 36 percent humidity, the fire went untamed.

"It got away from them as soon as the breeze got up," said Brian Kelly, who lives near Greer Road off the west side of East End. "I'm looking at brown grass all around the house. Green is just starting to show, so I can imagine what they're going through out there."

Dry conditions in the area have prompted state officials to order a suspension on use of burn barrels on the Kenai Peninsula. The last thing firefighters need, Weaver said, is another fire.

The National Weather Service was calling for winds to gust to 25 mph near Kachemak Bay overnight. And not a drop of rain in the forecast.

"The terrain is challenging, the fuels are definitely challenging and we've got a little bit of wind on it," Weaver said. "This fire is going to grow. This fire is going to get bigger."

Find James Halpin at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call 257-4589.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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