Peninsula residents were planning get-togethers and breathing sighs of relief Thursday, as crews continued to gain the upper hand in the Kenai wildfire. Containment reached 46 percent and campgrounds re-opened for visitors.
For three days, a combination of cooler temperatures, light rain and high humidity bolstered firefighting efforts and calmed the fears of people living near the perimeter of the fire. The Funny River fire grew to about 192,800 acres Thursday but officials reported good progress building lines to keep the blaze from spreading to populated areas.
Firefighters with Central Emergency Services are in the process of removing sprinklers and miles of hose line from homes previously threatened by the fire, said Brad Nelson, health and safety officer for Central Emergency Services.
Some of that equipment will be transferred to the more active eastern flank of the fire, where crews are working to protect recreational cabins and land allotments. That includes two cabins on the eastern shore of Tustumena Lake and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish weir on the Killey River
Other efforts are focused on the southeastern and southwestern corners of the fire and the Kenai Keys area to the northeast, as well as reinforcing existing containment lines on the western side of the fire in the Kasilof and Sterling Highway areas. More than 760 people are on the fire lines.
One firefighter was treated for a knee injury after he slipped while working on the fire, said Bernie Pineda, fire information officer. Much of the terrain is rugged and difficult to access.
At noon Thursday, the Lower Skilak Lake and Bottenintnin Lake campgrounds and boat launch re-opened to visitors, though a burn ban for the entire Peninsula was still in place. In a statement, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge said campfire restrictions are still in place across refuge lands, "but are being evaluated daily."
Investigators have determined the fire was human-caused but that an abandoned campfire was not the culprit. They have asked the public to come forward with information.
While hundreds of firefighters were still working to contain the blaze, residents were breathing easier as rain clouds overtook what had been smoky skies.
"The stress is kind of leaving," said Nelson of Central Emergency Services. "You can see it in the town."
Nelson himself has emerged as the face of Funny River firefighting operation, a visible and reliable figure in a community desperate for information and reassurance. On Thursday, the Kenai-based commercial radio station, KSRM (920 AM), unveiled a T-shirt that will be sold for charity at GAMAS Designs in Soldotna. The front of the shirt says, "Keep Calm and Wait for an Update from Brad Nelson."
The back says, "A community that came together. Funny River Fire 2014."
In another sign that the climate was shifting from fear to closure, Hooligans Lodge and Saloon in Soldotna was planning to host a celebratory party with Alaska folk singer-songwriter Hobo Jim on Thursday night.
The spirit of the party is "We survived," said Hooligans owner Molly Poland. The lodge sheltered as many as 130 people who were evacuated from their homes over the weekend, and about 30 pets.
"We're just celebrating the fact that there were no homes lost, no casualties," Poland said.
She added that she met "all sorts of people" during the fire, and she's lived in Soldotna for 35 years.
"We did it and we're better for it and closer for it," Poland said. Other community events being bandied about were a barbecue and a spaghetti dinner.
Officials are now in the process of documenting the fire, which is entering its 11th day. With vivid images reverberating across the Internet and on social media the last 10 days, the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team on Thursday launched a digital "photo map."
People are being asked to submit their fire photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Devin Kelly at email@example.com or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY