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.
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.