SOLDOTNA -- As flames raced across the dry spruce of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this week, a set of rapidly evolving questions confronted fire management officials.
Foremost among them: What to protect, and how to protect it, and would measures begun 15 years ago, like creating firebreaks, help slow the spread of a fire like the one burning now.
The last time such a large swath of refuge land burned was in 1969, when the Swanson River fire burned about 80,000 acres. In 1947, the Skilak Lake fire charred 310,000 acres.
The region's history of fire long predates the formation of the refuge. Ash studies and soil sampling show evidence of fire on the Kenai Peninsula some 8,000 years ago.
But in human terms, it's been a relatively long time since fire has visited the forest south of Funny River Road. Most of the material burning inside the perimeter of the Funny River fire has been growing since the last fire there about 200 years ago, said Doug Newbould, fire management officer for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Since Monday, as the fire grew from a few acres to more than 63,000, fire managers put a priority on keeping the flames from reaching the Funny River, Bear Creek, Kasilof and Soldotna communities. Crews reported progress on those fronts Thursday, containing a line of the fire along the northwestern flank near Funny River Road.
But the eastern flank has spread rapidly into remote reaches of the refuge, such as the Tustumena Bench area. With limited resources, that portion of the fire has received less attention than the fronts near populated areas, Newbould said.
From an ecological standpoint, the spread east is a welcome development, fire managers said.
"A lot of people don't realize that letting it burn in areas that doesn't threaten anything is good for the environment," said Brad Nelson, spokeswoman for Kenai Central Emergency Services. "It's for the trees, good for the land."
Pete Buist, fire information officer for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, said that the eastern flank of the fire is burning through a severe build-up beetle-kill spruce.
"There's no reason the fire shouldn't go through there," Buist said.
In general, the succession of the forest through a disturbance like a fire also helps support a greater diversity of animals, said Jeff Salinger, the Soldotna area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The 1969 burn, for example, "produced the moose populations people got used to down here," Salinger said.
Without turnover, moose populations generally decrease, as well as populations of other species like lynx and avian predators, Salinger said.
What's unusual about the Funny River fire is its timing. Rarely do fires burn so intensely so early in the year, Newbould said. An early-season fire typically only burns the light surface fuels.
Early-season fires also tend to be less beneficial than a late-season fire in ecological terms, Newbould said.
He said it won't be clear until the fire is fully extinguished what the benefits are.
"We're not really concerned about that right now," Newbould said. "What we're concerned about is getting the fire stopped before it gets off the refuge and onto private land."
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. But officials have ruled out natural causes, and the blaze is being treated as a human-caused fire.
As fast as the fire barreled through the dry vegetation of the refuge, years of advance planning are being credited for keeping the fire from spreading further.
Instrumental in halting the fire's spread to populated areas in the north, fire officials said, is a refuge-built fuel break built along Funny River Road. A fuel break is a gap in the flammable vegetation that slows a fire's spread.
Newbould designed the fuel break himself. Work on the fuel break began in 1999, and the refuge has maintained it over the years. Just last year, crews from the Yukon and Windy Bay were in the refuge working on improvements to the break.
The process involves thinning the forest and creating 20-foot spacing in between trees, so fire is less likely to leap from treetop to treetop, Newbould said.
Crews cut down both dead and live spruce, the most flammable materials, and removed slash and felled debris on the ground. Hardwood trees, such as aspen and cottonwood, typically don't burn and are left alone.
Members of the public have helped over the years by getting permits to clean up usable firewood.
"You have to maintain fuel breaks or they lose their effectiveness," Newbould said. "That's why it's been successful."
The Alaska Division of Forestry used a federal grant to build a fuel break on the south side of CIRI-owned land, south of Funny River. During the 2009 Shanta Creek fire, the refuge also built a second fuel break to the Killey River, east of Funny River.
All are playing into the strategy of managing the Funny Creek fire, Newbould said.
Reach Devin Kelly at email@example.com or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY