Update 10:50 a.m. Saturday:
The Funny River wildfire neared 100,000 acres in size Saturday morning as firefighters rushed to build containment lines on the western side of the blaze.
As of 10 a.m., the fire was burning on 96,584 acres, with 20 percent containment, officials said. Maps posted online show the fire had pushed largely to the east but also made advances toward Kasilof.
Air tankers and ground crews were continuing work on containment lines Saturday morning on milepost 103 to 105 of the Sterling Highway, where an evacuation order was issued for about 50 homes late Friday night. The order was lifted around 1 a.m. after fire activity subsided, officials said.
People can expect more fire activity later in the day as winds pick up and humidity decreases, said Brad Nelson, health and safety officer for Central Emergency Services.
Incident management officials were scrambling Saturday morning to get GIS mapping systems back online after the Homer Electric Association de-energized a transmission line at 3:01 a.m. for about 10 minutes, causing a widespread outage.
Update 8:15 a.m. Saturday:
Borough officials lifted their evacuation order at 1:18 a.m., citing decreased fire activity. But even as residents were told they could return to their homes, they were warned to be ready to leave again at short notice.
After spending the night at a friend's home, evacuees Fred and Cecilia Colvin were headed back to their house at Heavy Down Drive near mile 105 of the Sterling Highway about 8 a.m.
“We’re going home -- very scary evening,” Cecilia Colvin said in a text message to a reporter.
Officials said that by about 1:45 a.m., after the fire made its run in the vicinity of miles 103 to 105 of the Sterling Highway, the Funny River fire had grown to 78,215 acres. It was about 20 percent contained, with 409 people assigned to control it. A new map of the fire's extent was due to be published after 9 a.m.
Anchorage residents awoke to a foreboding orange sun and a strangely dark sky as the breeze brought the Kenai smoke north.
Update 12:50 a.m. Saturday:
Officials ordered an evacuation of about 50 homes east of the Sterling Highway north of Kasilof after a 200-foot wall of flames erupted on the western line of the Funny River fire late Friday night.
The flare-up occurred after the wind shifted, said Brad Nelson, health and safety officer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Central Emergency Services.
“It just started ripping," Nelson said.
Early Saturday morning, fire managers were developing a plan for attacking the newly aggressive fire, Nelson said, though it lost some of its ferocity when it burned into wetlands.
The evacuation was called for people living between Mile 103 and 105 on the east side of the Sterling Highway. That's about two miles north of the Pollard Subdivision, where residents were earlier advised to prepare themselves for evacuation. Those residents are so far not under evacuation order, though the situation there was being evaluated early Saturday morning, officials said.
Nelson said fire officials received numerous calls from residents when the fire made its sudden advance. When he arrived on scene, the fire was roaring through trees with a wall of flames extending 200 feet into the air.
Officials closed the Sterling Highway in the two-mile evacuation zone about 10 miles south of Soldotna.
The western edge of the massive Kenai Peninsula wildfire crept close enough to a large Kasilof subdivision Friday afternoon that authorities issued an "evacuation readiness advisory" warning residents to be ready to leave should the real order come.
Officials called the advisory precautionary, saying it means only that the Funny River Horse Trail Fire is close enough to the Pollard subdivision that residents could get an evacuation notice within 12 to 24 hours.
"The fire is crawling this way, and it is crawling," said Central Emergency Services health and safety officer Brad Nelson.
By Friday evening, the fire had crept closer to the Bear Creek subdivision, in the Funny River Road area and toward Kasilof, Nelson said. But a mix of cooler temperatures, slightly higher humidity and southwestern winds slowed the fire's advance, he added.
Firefighters from Central Emergency Services spent part of the day helping forestry crews with operations near Funny River Road. Then, when the evacuation readiness order was issued, those crews swung their focus to help with structural protection for Pollard Loop residents, clearing flammable materials and evaluating homes.
The Pollard subdivision is made up of roughly 100 lots with a mix of established ranch-style houses and newer expensive homes. Along the dusty, unpaved road leading into the subdivision, trucks pulling trailers on the way out passed the trucks of fire crews going the other way. The people who live in the Kasilof and Funny River communities have spent the week in limbo, organizing valuables and figuring out what to take.
The Funny River fire, now more than 67,000 acres, is burning in the 1.9-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Fire crews have converged on the Kenai Peninsula from around the state and the country, with some 375 people there Friday and 400 to 500 expected this weekend, authorities say.
North winds on Thursday gave way to calmer air Friday morning but fire bosses were expecting winds to shift and blow from the southwest at 10 to 15 mph, which could push the fire toward Funny River Road, where crews have established good fuel breaks, Nelson said.
On the north end of the fire, municipal fire crews from around the state -- Fairbanks, Delta, Chugiak, Mat-Su -- worked through the night to protect Funny River Road, according to the Alaska Incident Management Team. The fire is now 15 percent contained on the fire's northeast side.
Crews and bulldozers on Friday morning worked to secure fire lines by clearing fuels like grass and trees from the tail of the fire near Funny River to Cole Creek Lake, officials say. Helicopters dropped water to help crews defend the Funny River community.
On Friday afternoon, ground wildland fire crews went to the northwest corner of the Pollard subdivision to hike to the fire, Nelson said. Water-scooping planes dipping into Tustumena and Skilak lakes are working that side of the fire. Aircraft dropping water now have permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use chemical retardant on the flames, and bulldozers are allowed to build a fire line in the refuge, which is unusual.
The southern end of the fire made a late run to the southeast Thursday and was less than 2 miles from 10 homes at the Bear Creek subdivision on Tustumena Lake as of Friday, according to an update from fire managers. Smoke jumpers and a fire crew from Oregon deployed there for structure protection.
The NASA Earth Observatory on Friday released a stunning image of the fire as seen from space: a dense, dark gray wedge of smoke punctuated by towering white pyrocumulonimbus clouds of hellish "thunderheads formed when superheated air rises above an intense fire" where hail, lightning and strong winds often occur.
Down on the ground in the Pollard subdivision, Ruth Missik had been packing up her stuff since earlier in the week. Two ionizers were running in her home to control the smoke. She said she had never planned to stick around until someone told her to leave and was thinking she'd be gone by Friday night. Her advice for neighbors: "Don't panic, and pray for rain."
Bob Bush, 70, also loaded up valuables and papers in case the call comes to leave even as he tried to maintain his normal life.
"That's the state most of us are in here," said Bush, looking across his front yard. He had offered his family's hayfield across the road as a staging area for crews.
After a community information meeting Thursday night, Debbie Matarrese said she felt reassured enough about the fire that she started unpacking boxes. Then came the phone call early Friday afternoon telling her to prepare for an evacuation in the next 12 to 24 hours.
"That made it real," said Matarrese, 63.
She was standing on her front lawn, boxes stacked next to her car and on the front porch of her house.
Her next-door neighbors, Larry and Sue Moore, had pulled their boat out of storage and rigged it up to their truck. They said they wouldn't have bothered, but they were planning to put belongings inside if an evacuation was ordered.
They'd also offered to use the boat to help move Matarrese's belongings.
Down the road, two trailers and a flatbed truck were parked outside the Henderson household, overlooking Pollard Lake. When the evacuation warning went out, four families, friends from church, came to their aid.
Children carried out boxes filled with stuffed animals, toys and keepsakes. One woman carried a chair and two musical instrument cases.
Meanwhile, businesses that usually rely on visitors during Memorial Day weekend were fretting about what might happen this year. Near the Kasilof River, the Kasilof Riverview store normally sells gas, liquor and supplies incoming campers and fishermen. Co-owner Joe Browning said Friday morning he was waiting to see if people would show up.
"If there's smoke in the campgrounds, people won't stay," Browning said.
Residents near the other large fire burning in Alaska -- the Tyonek fire on the northwest shores of Cook Inlet -- have been warned to be ready to evacuate for several days, but fire officials late Friday said progress was going well. Five more wildland fire crews arrived Friday as the blaze covered more than 1,900 acres. A new management team was expected to take command of the fire Saturday morning.
The fire grew only slightly Friday, according to an update from the Alaska Division of Forestry.
Fire officials have notified Beluga residents that if fire reaches Shorty Creek, they'll need to be on alert in case evacuation becomes necessary.
The fire was about a half-mile from there Friday evening but not advancing, Palmer-based state fire management officer Norm McDonald said.
"It's been holding up really good today," McDonald said. "We got the extra people in there. The winds have been cooperating so far."
A red-flag fire warning continued into the evening for the Susitna Valley and the Kenai Peninsula, but the National Weather Service lifted the warning for other areas of the state.
A number of Tyonek residents, especially elders bothered by the heavy smoke, have already left the village of about 150 people that's bustling with fire crews and equipment. McDonald said crews tried to make room for a funeral in the village on Friday.
Crews counted 217 structures between Viapan Lake and Beluga, according to the update. That accounts for everything from fish camps to sheds to full-time homes.
Beluga, a community of about 50 people in winter, swells to nearly 150 in summer with people flying out to cabins and oil and gas workers such as those at the nearby Beluga River Gas Field.
Along with the residents, the local energy infrastructure has added urgency to firefighting efforts. The Chugach Electric Association power plant sits four miles north of Beluga. An oil-tank farm is within about six miles of Tyonek.
Fire weather forecasters are predicting no significant rain until Tuesday, and even that's a maybe, McDonald said.
A third significant fire burning near the Dalton Highway bridge across the Yukon River and the trans-Alaska pipeline grew to 500 acres by Friday but was moving away from structures and the pipeline, authorities said. Smoke jumpers and other crews secured a Bureau of Land Management visitor center and campground as well as the Yukon River Camp food, fuel and lodging stop. The fire was 10 percent contained, according to a Friday morning update.
Things were looking pretty good for that fire, said Pete Buist, a public information officer with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks.
"They've got a lot of work to do there, they got another crew coming in, but they actually got some (rain) overnight," Buist said, adding that higher humidities were also helping crews with direct attack Friday.
Information about current smoke conditions is available from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation at dec.alaska.gov/air/am/smoke.htm.
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. Information is available at www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency-mgmt/fire.
By DEVIN KELLY and ZAZ HOLLANDER
Anchorage Daily News