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Residents evacuated amid tense day battling raging Funny River wildfire

Nathaniel Herz
An Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter dumps water on the Funny River fire on Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
John Hohl, right, is exhausted and frustrated after being evacuated from his home near Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014. From a neighbor’s home, he watched the fire burn less than a half mile from his home.
Loren Holmes photo
Members of the Houston, Alaska fire department stage their personnel and equipment in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The area was later evacuated.
Loren Holmes photo
Sam Werner rests in Dan Desmarais’ yard after working furiously to clear trees from his friend John Hohl’s nearby property near Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014. Werner and others were told to evacuate as the fire jumped a fire line less than a half mile from Hohl’s home.
Loren Holmes photo
From left, Arianna Moonin, 11, Tristan Moonin, 8, Kammy Highlands-Vatshelle, 9, Elias Moonin, 12, and Tatiana Moonin, 9 play on a trampoline in the Funny River neighborhood while a forest fire burns behind them on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Their neighborhood was evacuated an hour later.
Loren Holmes photo
Helicopters drop water on the Funny River fire near Browns Lake on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
A helicopter drops water on a hot spot near the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
An airplane drops retardant on a fire line near Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
An Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter gathers water from Aurora Lake to dump on the Funny River fire, burning nearby on Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
A fire flares up south of Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
Driver Mike Morris monitors a ridge beyond a group of firefighters working on a fire line near Aurora Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Morris is looking for any sign of the fire encroaching on the firefighters.
Loren Holmes photo
Dan Desmarais, left, and Steve Schumacher watch the Funny River fire from Desmarais’ deck on Browns Lake on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
An Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter prepares to gather water from Aurora Lake to dump on the Funny River fire, burning nearby on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Behind the helicopter is a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, created by fire activity on the north east edge of the fire.
Loren Holmes photo
From left, Levi Hohl, Steve Schumacher, John Hohl and Dan Desmarais watch fire activity from Desmarais’ deck on Browns Lake on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
ohn Hohl walks the fire line near his home on Sunday morning, May 25, 2014. He and his brother were putting out hot spots.
Loren Holmes photo
A river boat stands offshore in front of the fire line on the south side of the Kenai River at 2:03 p.m. on Saturday, May 24, 2014, across from Kenai Keys.
Brian Looney photo
An ember burns in the northern portion of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, May 24, 2014. The area, along a fire line south of Browns Lake, had burned three hours before.
Loren Holmes photo
Firefighters douse hot spots along a fire line near Browns Lake on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
A hot spot flares up along the edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Browns Lake on Sunday morning, May 25, 2014. The Funny River fire was temporarily stopped here overnight, but changing conditions prompted officials to issue an evacuation order for neighborhoods directly across the line.
Loren Holmes photo
Fire reaches the south side of the Kenai River, just across from the Kenai Keys Subdivision, at 1:50 p.m. Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Brian Looney photo
Sam Werner, left, and Levi Hohl put out hot spots along a fire line near Hohl’s brother’s home near Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday, May 24, 2014. The Funny River fire had burned up to the line three hours before.
Loren Holmes photo
Central Emergency Services firefighters put out hot spots along the edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Browns Lake on Sunday morning, May 25, 2014. The Funny River fire was temporarily stopped here overnight, but changing conditions prompted officials to issue an evacuation order for neighborhoods directly across the line.
Loren Holmes photo
Boats and equipment are ferried away from a cabin and away from the approaching fire on the south side of the Kenai River at 1:54 p.m. on Saturday, May 24, 2014, near Kenai Keys.
Brian Looney photo
Sam Werner walks a fire line near Browns Lake, looking for hot spots, on Saturday, May 24, 2014. The Funny River fire had burned up to the line three hours before.
Loren Holmes photo
Central Emergency Services firefighters walk the fire line along the edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Browns Lake on Sunday morning, May 25, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
An airplane prepares to drop retardant on a fire burning on the edge of Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
A bulldozer clears a fire line on Saturday, May 24, 2014, protecting the Funny River neighborhood from a wildfire that has topped 100 thousand acres in size.
Loren Holmes photo
Central Emergency Services firefighter Sarah Smith informs residents Mike Foust and Danna Moisii of the current Funny River fire conditions from a lookout point at the end of Alaska View Lane in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Sunday, May 25, 2014. In the distance, a hot spot flares up from the still very active fire.
Loren Holmes photo
A fire burns on the edge of Lake Road in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
A pyrocumulonimbus cloud forms above the northern flank of the Funny River fire on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
The Funny River fire burns near the northern edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Browns Lake on Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
Chris Lucas watches a fire burn near his home off of Lake Road in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
Central Emergency Services firefighter Sarah Smith informs Funny River residents Pete Chaussee, left, Angela Rhodes, and Dan Smith of the current Funny River fire conditions from a lookout point at the end of Alaska View Lane in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
John Hohl, left, rushes to clear spruce from his home near Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014. With him is his brother Levi Hohl, in red, and friend Sam Werner.
Loren Holmes photo
The Funny River fire burns near the northern edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Browns Lake on Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
Dan Desmarais, left, helps his neighbor John Hohl water his home and yard in advance of the nearby Funny River fire on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014. Hohl’s home is near Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna.
Loren Holmes photo
Central Emergency Services firefighters monitor hot spots that had crossed the fire line near Alaska View Lane in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The area was evacuated later that day.
Loren Holmes photo
A firefighter warns Sam Werner, left, and Levi Hohl of a fire that jumped a fire line a half mile from where they were working to try to secure Levi Hohl’s brother’s property near Browns Lake in the Funny River neighborhood of Soldotna on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 2014. They were evacuated shortly afterwards.
Loren Holmes photo

SOLDOTNA -- The wind-driven northern head of the massive Funny River fire on the Kenai Peninsula forced the evacuation of some 900 people along a 15-mile stretch of dead-end road near the city of Soldotna on Sunday, as residents left their homes not knowing if the structures would still be standing when they returned.

Sunday evening, officials said that no buildings had burned in the fire, and they said the evacuation had primarily been a precautionary measure for residents whose homes were surrounded by quick-burning spruce trees.

But they did acknowledge that the blaze had crossed to the northern shore of the Kenai River and created smaller “spot” fires in the area of Kenai Keys -- southeast of the community of Sterling -- where authorities issued a separate evacuation advisory as firefighters tried to keep the flames from spreading.

“They threw everything at it,” Kris Eriksen, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, told a group of 50 evacuees who had gathered at a local sports center on Sunday evening.

The Funny River fire, which had grown to an estimated 243 square miles by 5 p.m. Sunday -- compared to 193 square miles as of late Saturday -- has been burning for six days, primarily in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where it doesn’t pose an imminent threat to people or buildings.  

For the last several days, firefighters have been focused on keeping the fire from spreading into two populated areas: a stretch of Kasilof east of the Sterling Highway, and the neighborhoods surrounding 20-mile-long Funny River Road, which meanders just south of the Kenai River between Soldotna and Sterling.

Authorities ordered a hurried evacuation of about 50 homes in Kasilof late Friday as the fire advanced rapidly there. But the blaze slowed when it hit a marshy area and winds subsided, none of the houses burned and residents were allowed to return home.

Since then, focus has turned toward Funny River Road, where Sunday’s evacuation followed a near-miss Saturday when a wall of flames briefly jumped over a fire break and burned several acres before crews could squash them at a hastily-bulldozed secondary line, thanks to airborne tankers dumping loads of fire retardant.

“It was a heroic save,” said Michelle Weston, a public information officer for the management team that’s coordinating fire response here.

Waiting for evacuation

On Sunday, the fire again drove toward houses at the east end of Funny River Road, while residents waited and wondered if they’d be forced to evacuate as bucket-toting Black Hawk helicopters and tanker planes swooped overhead.

Before an evacuation was ordered for his area, Dennis Downs, 64, stood atop a boulder at the end of his mother-in-law’s driveway off Alaska View Lane.

As he watched, the fire sent up flames and huge clouds of smoke visible over a ridge to the south. Downs and his wife, Kelly, had no idea whether the blaze was still under control.

The couple had cleared dead trees and dry grass away from the home, and a sprinkler was at work gently wetting down the front patio. But the huge scale of the fire seemed to dwarf those efforts.

"There's a good possibility the house will burn," Dennis Downs said.

Kelly Downs, 52, said her 79-year-old mother had already left the homestead, where she'd lived since the 1970s.

"She's just terrified her house is going to go," said Kelly Downs, 52. "Her blessing is she's got a metal roof and vinyl siding and a big yard in front of her."

A few driveways up the dirt road, Jenny Johnson, 60, said she'd been on edge Saturday evening as the fire approached so close that "you could actually hear it just roaring."

Her neighbors had already moved horses off their property, and Johnson said she was ready to go.

"Everything that's important to me is in a little white trailer," she said.

Johnson said she'd been staying up late at night with neighbors, and was planning to cook cornbread and a big pot of chili Sunday evening.

Even as her friends started seeing Facebook posts about the evacuation, Johnson told one: “I’m not leaving ’til they knock on my door.”

But around 3 p.m., state troopers began circulating through her neighborhood, telling people it was time to leave.

Residents loaded their belongings and pets into cars and trucks, thanking firefighters on their way out.

Mixed messages

Many ended up at the sports center in Soldotna that officials had transformed into an overnight shelter for evacuees.

Some of them received a visit Sunday afternoon from Gov. Sean Parnell, who flew into the area for a helicopter tour of the fire and an afternoon news conference.

He also talked to evacuees at the sports complex, said spokesman Michael Soukup.

In the parking lot there, Earl Boucher, 71, said he and his wife drove away from their home off Funny River Road with a trailer hauling two ATVs, and packed clothing and photographs into his pickup truck. They left everything else behind.

“TVs and my tools, a snowmachine, and another four-wheeler, and two boats,” he said. “I just couldn’t carry ’em.”

“Living there, you have in the back of your mind it’s one way in and one way out -- and it’s surrounded by forest,” he added. “It’s still not a good feeling when you’re deciding what you can take, what you can’t take, and what you may leave.”

As Sunday afternoon progressed, Boucher said he and his wife had received a series of evacuation notices, each with a different message.

The couple could have used more information, he said.

But he added authorities were doing a “fair enough” job of communicating with residents given how quickly the fire was changing -- and in fact, he took things into his own hands at times, driving out to areas where he could see the flames for himself.

“Firsthand was just about the only way -- look with your own eyes and make an assessment,” Boucher said.

Another evacuee, James Craycraft, 44, said he and his wife bought their house near Funny River Road in October.

It’s insured, but Craycraft still said he was worried.

“I hope my house is there when I come back,” he said.

He, like many evacuees, said he was grateful for the 450 firefighters who had been working to protect homes over the last several days, and who Craycraft said were looking “exhausted.”

Contact Nathaniel Herz at nherz(at)adn.com.