With three major wildfires, more ground is burning in Alaskan than any other state besides chronically dry Arizona, drawing crews from the Lower 48 and aerial tankers from Canada to supplement firefighting teams from villages, town and cities.
By Thursday, active fires were burning across almost 66,000 acres in Alaska, most of it on the Kenai Peninsula, authorities say.
Fire commanders expecting rising winds worked to make advances against fires near at-risk areas including homes on the Kenai and the complex of oil, natural gas and power generation facilities near Beluga, across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.
Strong winds and low humidity prompted the National Weather Service to issue red-flag warnings for critical fire conditions through 10 p.m. Friday for the Susitna Valley and western Kenai Peninsula -- sites of the two largest fires in the state. Forecasters predicted "strong and gusty northerlies" with very dry air behind them. They also issued bad-air alerts for Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough for the Memorial Day weekend, especially in the mornings.
A major infusion of personnel and air power allowed crews to get aggressive Thursday against the Funny River Horse Trail Fire that's burned more than 63,000 acres on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The fire on Thursday grew mainly to the east, and a bit to the south, said fire information officer Celeste Prescott.
Nearly 170 firefighters and other personnel assigned to the fire were joined by two air tankers, five helicopters, and four Canadian water bombers locals could spot scooping out of Tustumena and Skilak lakes. Crews assigned to the fire included those from Chena, Palmer, Hooper Bay, Huslia, Nikolai, Nondalton and Stebbins. More wildland crews were en route. A "task force" of fire engines and other vehicles and personnel headed down Thursday from Delta, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su Borough.
The water bomber planes made drops on the fire's perimeter near Kasilof, where the fire was burning within four miles of the Kasilof River, public information officer Michelle Weston said Thursday morning. Wildland firefighters headed by boat to the remote Bear Creek subdivision east of Tustumena Lake, about three miles from the fire.
Helicopters dumped water on the fire's northeast flank near Funny River Road, Weston said. Crews working through the night Wednesday made progress corralling the fire on the northwest corner with a bulldozer-cleared fire break.
Officials continued to urge residents to remember how dry and fire-prone the Peninsula remains. A burn suspension that includes burn barrels has been in place on the Kenai for a week. Campfires in approved fire ring three feet across or smaller are OK, but there must be water nearby and the fire can't be left unattended.
Despite the warnings -- and the proximity of a massive blaze -- firefighters responded to several backyard debris burns and abandoned campfires on the Kenai Wednesday, according to an Alaska interagency fire update. Crews responding Wednesday to a structure fire on Irish Hills Avenue near the Sterling Highway discovered a nearby homeowner with a 40-square-foot pile of debris "that he had been burning for quite some time," according to the center's update. An engine and squad of firefighters put a containment line in place and doused the fire.
At meetings for the Funny River and Kasilof communities Thursday night, officials shared information with hundreds of residents on the scale of firefighting efforts and evacuation procedures and sought to quell mounting worries from residents who have nervously watched the fire spread over the past two days.
At Tustumena Elementary School, the residents pressed officials about evacuation plans, the weather forecast, and Memorial Day weekend crowds, incredulous that open campfires were still permitted. They asked if there was anything they could to do help, volunteering their own personal heavy equipment. Officials politely declined the offer.
Raising his voice to the officials, Martin Calloway, 62, demanded: "How close are you going to let it get to our homes?"
The question wasn't directly answered.
Scott Walden, the Kenai Peninsula Borough's emergency services chief, assured residents that the borough was in close coordination with fire managers on evacuation plans. If people had to leave, they could expect at least several hours notice, he said.
After the meeting, several residents said they felt better hearing about the resources being used on the fire. Others said they remained concerned, though they acknowledged they were better informed.
"I don't know how to feel," said Calloway.
Another fire on the northwest shore of Cook Inlet between Tyonek and Beluga continued to pose a threat but no immediate danger to Beluga oil and natural gas facilities or the Chugach Electric Association power plant north of Beluga, according to Renette Saba, public information officer on the Tyonek fire. Firefighters conducted burnout operations to clear a buffer around natural gas distribution pipelines, substations and a power line.
Crews also defended the Beluga Power Plant, which provides power for much of Anchorage, with a controlled burn that stopped the fire's progress in that direction, utility and fire officials said. The fire remained about five miles from the power plant, Chugach spokesman Phil Steyer said Thursday.
A ConocoPhillips spokeswoman said the fire was about two miles southwest of the Beluga River Gas Field. Conoco has wells, a gas processing plant and living quarters in the area, spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said.
If the situation with the fire changed, Conoco and other operators would work together to evacuate workers and shut-in wells, Lowman said.
Another producer, Hilcorp, operates an oil storage tank farm about six miles from Tyonek. The company reduced oil in the tanks to minimum levels, according to spokeswoman Lori Nelson. As of Thursday, Nelson said, the fire was moving away from the facility.
Fire was still four miles from Enstar Natural Gas facility at Beluga, a small building with meters that track power plant consumption and monitor gas flow from producers, Enstar spokesman John Sims said.
Enstar operates a 20-inch high-pressure natural gas transmission line from west Cook Inlet to the Mat-Su, but it's underground, Sims said. Even if Enstar had to stop flow from that section of line, he said, the utility would pull gas from the other side of the Inlet and there wouldn't be any interruptions.
5 STRUCTURES LOST
The Tyonek Fire had grown to about 1,800 acres by Thursday but was still more than a mile from the nearest homes in Beluga during the day, Saba said. Most of the fire's growth of about 300 acres since Wednesday was due to spot fires that developed downwind.
The fire destroyed three Conex containers south of Viapan lake and two outbuildings near the mouth of the Chuitna River, Saba said.
There were 108 personnel assigned to that blaze, a mix of wildland crews including hot shot, initial attack and hand crews wielding pulaski tools to put out smoldering wood and hold existing fire lines. Wildland crews assigned to the fire came from Palmer, Fairbanks, Selawik and White Mountain. A fresh management team was expected to take over Friday afternoon.
As on the Kenai, commanders on Tyonek fire are wary of potential afternoon and evening winds. Crews built a fire line -- a vegetation-free fire buffer -- around a natural gas tower and bulldozers carved another line from the Beluga Road to the coast in an effort to contain the fire east of the road.
By Thursday evening, no fire had passed the burned-out areas created the night before, Palmer-based state fire management officer Norm McDonald said.
"We're doing pretty good today, although this is kind of the time of day the wind picks up and starts changing on them," McDonald said around 6 p.m.
Crews remained in the village of Tyonek, about 10 miles south of Beluga. Many residents evacuated Monday night when the fire threatened their homes, though they've since been allowed back with a warning to be ready to move if the fire shifts.
The biggest need in Tyonek Thursday was supplies for residents and for firefighters who nearly doubled the remote village's population, locals said. People have already donated more than $24,000, according to information posted on Tyonek Native Corporation's Facebook page. Apache Corp. and Hilcorp donated fuel and ConocoPhillips transported goods by helicopter.
The money has been spent on fuel for trucks and four-wheelers plus more than $7,000 for food and other supplies.
"The support has been phenomenal," the post stated. "I understand that the firefighters appreciate all the hot meals."
AWAY FROM PIPELINE
Meanwhile, another fire burning near the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Dawson Highway bridge across the Yukon River had grown to 450 acres by Thursday but wasn't immediately threatening structures or the pipeline, according to the state Division of Forestry.
The Dalton River Crossing Fire was moving away from the highway and the pipeline Thursday afternoon, according to a spokesman for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
Fire information officer Pete Buist said the fire got to within about a mile and a half of the pipeline, Alaska's chief economic artery. But the west end of the fire closest to that area has quieted down while the other end of the fire is more active and burning north uphill. An 80-acre spot fire was closer to a BLM visitor center and Yukon River Camp, a Dalton Highway fuel, lodging and food stop, Buist said.
The number of people on that fire jumped Thursday to 52, with wildland fire crews from the villages of Allakaket and Minto and more aircraft arriving Wednesday night, joining 16 smokejumpers and a helicopter already there.
Forecasting strong winds across much of Alaska and areas of low humidity, the National Weather Service on Thursday issued red-flag warnings from Kotzebue to Bristol Bay. Even in places without the warning, such as Anchorage, Kodiak and the Mat-Su Borough, state foresters have suspended burn permits.
With the Memorial Day weekend approaching, fire officials urged extreme caution.
"Any spark could start a fire. We don't need any more fires," said Doug Newbould, fire management officer for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. "We got a big enough one."
Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Services has set up a call line to help homeowners with fire preparedness. Residents can call (907) 714-2495.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER and DEVIN KELLY
Anchorage Daily News