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Wildfires grow in Southcentral, stretching firefighters thin

Zaz Hollander

A wildfire that threatened the village of Tyonek on the northwest side of Cook Inlet has triggered more than 100 evacuations while an explosive wind-driven blaze near Soldotna more than doubled in size Tuesday to 7,000 acres in dry, windy conditions.

The Kenai Peninsula fire was not threatening any homes or structures, and no evacuations were in place as of mid-afternoon Tuesday.

The Tyonek fire jumped the Chuitna River and started burning near the village airstrip and a new subdivision in the community of nearly 200 residents overnight Monday into Tuesday, authorities said.

That fire had also doubled in size Tuesday to 1,000 acres, moving northwest and not toward Tyonek, according to an update from the state Division of Forestry.

Members of the Pioneer Peak and Midnight Sun hotshot crews conducted a "burn out operation" to remove fuel for the approaching flames and asked residents in the area to leave their homes, forestry officials said. Crews managed to keep flames out of the village and were hoping to hold the fire line through the day and keep the flames from spreading toward Beluga to the north.

Tribal administrator Donita Slawson said the smoke-filled air prompted about 50 village residents, mostly older people or those with respiratory problems, to fly to Anchorage for relief Tuesday morning. Another 70 to 80 people have set up temporary lodging at the Tyonek Lodge outside the village, at a timber camp about 5 miles away, or at several fish camps on the beach.

Forestry officials say they hope residents can return to their homes by Tuesday night.

A much larger fire on the Kenai Peninsula was burning even more voraciously but posed less of an immediate threat to homes, though residents of Kasilof and Funny River Road were watching its progress with growing concern.

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the Funny River Horse Trail Fire in undeveloped forest near Soldotna had doubled in size in several hours to 7,000 acres, chewing through a mix of dry fuels and driven by winds that are expected to pick up in the afternoon, authorities said. Plumes of smoke were visible in satellite images from space, caused by the flames sweeping through dry, unburned fuel like black spruce.

The fire burned a southern path from its origin near Funny River Road to Tustumena Lake, spreading east and west along the shore, according to Michelle Weston, spokeswoman for the Type 2 incident management team that was taking over from the local fire office to free up resources.

Forty people are on the fire lines, along with two helicopters and two bulldozers, forestry officials said Tuesday morning. The Type 2 management team, consisting of six village crews with about 15 people each, was to arrive in Soldotna at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Kenai Peninsula Borough emergency services officials say the smoke and ash from the Funny River fire is likely to prompt air-quality warnings.

The National Weather Service in Anchorage issued a red flag warning Tuesday for strong winds across the western Kenai Peninsula. The warning will be in place until 9 p.m., with the forecast calling for north winds gusting up to 30 mph. The strongest winds will be near Cook Inlet, according to an alert from the weather service.

"We're not expecting too much reprieve from Mother Nature," said Soldotna-based Forestry spokeswoman Andy Alexandrou. He said that slightly cooling weather will help slightly slow the progression of the fire.

Authorities have determined the fire was likely caused by people, Alexandrou said, noting that the area is open to recreational use.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or (907) 352-6705.

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The Tebughna Foundation has started an account at Wells Fargo to accept donations for food and other supplies for displaced Tyonek residents and firefighters. The account number is #775 854 3065.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
and DEVIN KELLY