SOLDOTNA - Firefighters anxiously awaited the arrival of rain on the Kenai Peninsula as they worked Monday to contain the edge of a huge wildfire that for the first time crossed to the north side of the Kenai River -- a 300-foot-wide natural fire buffer that failed to keep flames in check.
Winds gusting to 25 miles per hour were pushing the massive Funny River Fire, estimated on Monday evening to be just over 176,000 acres, or about 275 square miles, through an uninhabited area north of the Kenai River outside of the community of Sterling, while firefighters patrolled the western boundary of that blaze and tried to create a barrier for an estimated 100 homes and cabins in a nearby waterfront community in case the wind shifts .
Residents of Kenai Keys, which sits on the north shore of the Kenai River near Sterling, said embers started several small fires there on Sunday that were quickly put out, and that a dilapidated cabin across the river burned to the ground. But authorities said late Monday that they were still unaware of any inhabited buildings that have been destroyed by the week-old blaze.
And after several days of dry, windy conditions prime for burning, forecasters were finally predicting a 90 percent chance of rain Tuesday, with showers possible later in the week -- a huge relief for the estimated 670 firefighters assigned to the fire by Monday evening.
"Everybody's talking about it," said Brad Nelson, a spokesman for the local borough's fire department.
The rain won't put out the flames, he added, but "it'll make a huge impact."
On the north side of the Kenai River, where the fire was burning actively, crews worked to seal off its western flank from Kenai Keys and from Sterling, and ultimately hoped to wrap around the fire's northern edge. If that doesn't work, they plan to use Skilak Lake Road, south of the Sterling Highway, as a fire break, Nelson said.
Nearby, on the opposite side of the river, crews also lit a controlled burn Monday to solidify a fire buffer in the area of Funny River Road, which stretches about 20 miles along the southern shore of the Kenai.
The wildfire wasn't directly threatening homes there like it did earlier in the weekend, but sporadic small fires in burned-over areas kept crews busy, said John Hohl, whose small home sits near a containment line where firefighters almost lost control of the blaze on Saturday.
"There's a lot of spot fires popping back up," Hohl said in a phone interview.
But "there's very little timber left, very few stands. Everything's black as far as you can see," he added.
At the fire's western edge, near Kasilof, officials lifted an evacuation advisory that had been in place for three days for a pair of subdivisions.
Firefighters were working to secure a containment line along that whole side of the fire, from Funny River Road south to Tustumena Lake, and were "having more success on that side," according to Bernie Pineda, a spokesperson for the management team that's coordinating the response to the fire.
He added that crews expected to have the line "buttoned up" by late Monday.
The eastern section of Funny River Road -- an area with an estimated 900 residents and 1,000 structures -- remained under an evacuation order Monday, although officials didn't force people to leave their homes, and an indeterminate number of residents stayed behind.
Officials planned an update at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Nelson said they were optimistic the area would reopen.
A local fishing lodge in Soldotna, Hooligans, was providing free rooms for an estimated 130 evacuees Monday, or "160 if you include cats and dogs," said Heather Lee, an employee there.
Eight more people had checked into a shelter at a local school, officials said. And about 50 stayed in campers Sunday night at a local sports complex; more recent figures were not immediately available.
Kenai Keys scare
On Monday afternoon, dozens of firefighters were stationed in and around Kenai Keys, a dense subdivision where cabins and large, upscale log homes sit along canals carved into the northern bank of the Kenai River, about 15 miles east of Soldotna.
A day earlier, part-time and year-round residents gathered on the riverbank and watched a wall of flames come roaring up to the opposite edge, with winds lofting half-dollar-sized embers that landed on property across the river.
Community members, some on ATVs and armed with five-gallon buckets, patrolled the neighborhood, "roaming around looking for hotspots," and caught several, said Burke Wick, 57.
A small fire started under a deck, and a roof also started burning on another building, but both were put out, with firefighters and a bucket-toting helicopter aiding the community response.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough distributed an evacuation advisory for the area to media just before 6 p.m. Sunday, but several residents said that suggestion came far later than it should have, since the wildfire had made its run at the neighborhood hours before.
Earl Smith said he had taken his kids to play in Soldotna earlier Sunday, unaware that the Funny River Fire posed any risk.
"Did you find out who was in charge of giving us notice over here? Because we had none," Smith said. "The notice was the fire knocking on my door."
Nelson, the spokesman for the local fire department, said Smith was "speaking the truth."
"The fire was just erratic as heck for the last three days, and it did some stuff they didn't expect," he said. "And when it did, they tried to give them a heads-up as early as possible that these guys might be affected. I just don't think they expected the fire would go there."
By Monday, the active part of the fire north of the Kenai was burning to the east of Kenai Keys, with a broad column of smoke visible on the horizon.
Residents weren't concerned for their immediate safety, but Frank Turpin, 66, said that's because the wind was still pushing the fire away from the neighborhood.
"If the wind shifts, it could get ugly," he said, as he paused from trundling a wheelbarrow around his home. "And that's what we're getting ready for."
About a mile up the river from Kenai Keys, where the fire jumped across Sunday, charred stands of limbless spruce stood over an ashen gray-brown ground.
Some spots were still warm, with flames flickering from the occasional stump as birds chirped and wheeled above the water.
'Aimed at the cabin'
Kenai Keys residents had the advantage of the 300-foot-wide river standing between the fire and their property on Sunday.
Blake Gettys didn't.
He's had his compound, which includes a cabin and several other trim, green buildings, since 2001. It sits across from Kenai Keys, on the southern shore of the Kenai, and is the only inhabited property in the immediate area on that side of the river.
Gettys, 48, a colonel in the Air National Guard, arrived at the compound Friday for a Memorial Day weekend with friends.
His wife had died unexpectedly the previous Sunday; he's preparing to travel to her burial in Ohio and will bring some of her ashes back to Alaska. She called the compound his "mistress," Gettys said.
By Saturday morning, it was clear the fire was headed his direction. Gettys and nine of his friends piled brush, cut trees, and used three pumps to spray what they guessed was 100,000 gallons of water around the property.
"It was like a swamp," said one of those friends, Steve Latham. One building even developed a moat.
Gettys worked until 3:30 a.m. Sunday, then woke up at 7 a.m. and continued until the fire forced the group to go.
Everyone piled into boats to cross the river to Kenai Keys.
The fire was so close, "I could feel it on the back of my neck," said Latham.
On the far side, they watched the approach of a wall of flames that towered above the trees.
"It was like it was aimed at the cabin," said Latham. "I think everybody was convinced it was gone."
Gettys said he kept waiting to see flames rushing up the trees behind his cabin. "It finally got too consumed in smoke to see it any more," he said.
The group kept their eyes on Gettys' American flag at the edge of the water. It didn't catch fire.
Finally, he and Latham took a boat back across the river.
There were isolated pockets of flames burning inside the border of the compound; wood piles and hoses scattered within the property had been scorched, some directly beneath unburned, bone-dry spruce trees -- the same kind of spruce trees that have fueled the growth of the wildfire for the last week.
But the whole property essentially remained an island of green, within a sea of charred forest. Every single structure was untouched.
"There's not even a smudge mark on a building," Gettys said.
He and Latham put out the fires using buckets and water from the moat. Packages of food that the group had left outside didn't even melt -- Gettys said he pulled and ate a marshmallow from one such package.
A firefighter told one of Gettys' friends it looked like someone had placed a cup over the property before the fire came through.
The group came back across the river, and cooked salmon for dinner. They worked until 11 p.m. Sunday, and had soaked a huge ring around the outside of the property by Monday afternoon.
Gettys was headed home to Eagle River; at least one of his friends would stay to keep an eye on the property.
Ultimately, Gettys plans to bury his wife's ashes at the compound.
"This was kind of a peaceful place for us," he said.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311. Laurel Andrews contributed to this report.
By NATHANIEL HERZ