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Kenai Peninsula wildfires spread as evacuation order continues

The Kenai Peninsula's Card Street fire grew to an estimated 2,000 acres Tuesday evening as crews continued to battle the blaze that has damaged or destroyed at least 10 structures in Sterling. Lightning had also sparked two fires in the Cooper Landing area on U.S. Forest Service lands, said Terry Anderson, a Division of Forestry spokesman.

"The (Card Street) fire is getting more active," Division of Forestry public information officer Tim Mowry said at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Fire activity on a scorching day in Southcentral had mostly been on the blaze's eastern perimeter and had burned into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, he said.

And when a lightning storm rolled into the area Tuesday evening, another fire ignited north of Mile 51 of the Sterling Highway, near the Juneau Lake cabins on the Resurrection Pass Trail, Anderson said. A third fire broke out to the south in a steep, mountainous area, he said.

State troopers were assisting Tuesday evening with the evacuation of the Kenai Keys subdivision that was announced that morning, as crews held the Card Street fire east of the subdivision, Mowry said.

The fire, first reported just before 2 p.m. Monday, grew 1,200 acres within eight hours, said Anderson. Ten structures were reported lost in the fire by Tuesday afternoon, including three homes.

Bruce Weathers was one of those unlucky few who lost a home to the main fire. His two-story house on Austin Circle burned to the ground Monday with only the home's cinder block foundation left standing. A twisted heap of scorched metal roofing lay on top of blackened belongings that cluttered the basement of the hollowed-out home.

On Tuesday afternoon, patches of ground on his 1.5-acre property were still smoldering. Torched spruce trees resembled burnt matchsticks and the ground, charcoal; the roughly 20 cars that he had collected over the years were now burned-out carcasses scorched white.

Weathers said that on Monday, he didn't know a fire had started until he heard helicopters flying overhead. When he looked outside, trees on his property were already burning.

Weathers said he didn't want to leave but the firefighters physically removed him. He's glad they did.

"They said they didn't want to find a corpse here," he said.

He grabbed a few important papers. Everything else was left behind.

When Weathers returned Tuesday, he found all his belongings destroyed, save one purple Ford compact that the firefighters had moved out of harm's way.

"I'm very grateful … I didn't want to have to go looking for a car today," he said.

But his prized 1962 Ford F-600 truck was ruined.

"She's pretty much toast," he said, peeking under the hood.

Among the burned possessions were photos of his late wife, books and his cars, all the belongings he said he was most distraught to lose.

Weathers said he would rebuild but would be "downsizing." Twelve feet away, his neighbors' house stood unharmed.

'This is all we can handle'

By midday Tuesday, the fire was estimated at 1,500 acres. Emergency officials were asking residents in the Kenai Keys subdivision to evacuate. An updated fire map showed the fire encompassing a portion of Kenai Keys Road.

At 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Kenai Peninsula Borough spokesperson Brenda Ahlberg wrote that the west entrance of Skilak Lake Road at the Sterling Highway would be closed to the lower Skilak campground as the fire moved east toward the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, but that the boat ramp at the campground would remain accessible.

The Card Street fire was human-caused, Anderson said Tuesday. It was started just east of Scotsman Street, which runs parallel to Feuding Lane in Sterling.

Ginny Plascencia and fiance Stuart Martinez were among the residents who evacuated Monday as the fire burned about 100 yards from their home on Card Road.

The couple "grabbed whatever we could and the cat and the dog and we were gone," Plascencia said Tuesday as she drove a packed Subaru Outback to the property to check on the house, which was still undamaged.

On Tuesday afternoon, a 22-person hot shot crew from Selawik was heading into a forested area off of Card Road where a column of black smoke rose up from the spruce tree forest.

The fire was still growing, said hot shot crew leader Barney Pete, and erratic winds were causing the blaze to shift.

"The fire is going everywhere," Pete said.

Meanwhile, Alaska firefighting resources are stretched thin as crews battle the Sockeye fire in Willow.

"This is all we can handle," Anderson said. "If we have another (fire), we're in trouble."

Fifty-five people were fighting the Kenai Peninsula fire, Mowry said. Five more crews, totaling 100 new people, were en route from the Lower 48, Anderson said. Alaska's Interagency Coordination Center has been assigned to the Sockeye fire, so an interagency team is also heading up to Alaska from Outside to handle the Kenai Peninsula fire.

Central Emergency Services in Soldotna was on the scene, Mowry said, and local firefighters, including the Nikiski and Kenai fire departments, have also been a "huge help," he said.

Temperatures in Sterling hovered around 80 degrees midday Tuesday. Meanwhile, a red flag warning was in place over much of the state. Anderson said he was concerned that these conditions could lead to "exponential progress" of the fire.

Turned to ash

On Tuesday, forestry officials were conducting damage assessments at the scene of the fire, Ahlberg wrote.

But others were calculating their own damages -- Anchorage resident Greg Roberts estimated that he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when a house he owned burned.

Within a few hours of the Card Street fire's initial beginnings Monday, what was once Roberts' fish camp and future retirement home was reduced to ash and a pile of scorched metal frames, he said.

"It's pretty disheartening," Roberts said Tuesday. "Between me and my buddies, we built it from the ground up."

Roberts lost his 20-by-24-foot log cabin, a 16-by-20 bunkhouse, three boats, a motor home, two vehicles and personal items left at the cabin during a move to Anchorage.

A friend on the Peninsula called Roberts as he was leaving work Monday, informing him about the fire.

When Roberts finally got to his cabin on Alamo Road, it was already dust on the ground.

"Everything was just flat," Roberts said. "There was just nothing left."

Roberts estimates the cost of the damage totals somewhere around $250,000 but it still could have been worse -- it could have been his only home.

"There's someone's house right there too, and it's gone," he said. "Those people have no place to go. But there's not a lot you can do."

'My heart breaks for my community'

For some, the evacuation order is a repeat of last summer, when the Funny River fire tore through the Peninsula, burning nearly 200,000 acres of land just south of the Card Street fire site.

Frank Kaffel, who rode through the Kenai Keys neighborhood on a bike Tuesday afternoon, said that he is staying in a motor home on his friends' pasture, where he and his family will weather the fire.

"We did this last year, and I'm 77," Kaffel said. "We had to take down all our artwork, all our family memorabilia, our guns, our boat and get it out in less than three hours."

Kaffel praised the firefighters, saying that "these are our angels."

For Tom Deal, the evacuation is also like déjà vu. He was camped out along the Sterling Highway Tuesday with belongings he grabbed from his house as soon as he saw the fire's plume. They included a boat, a trailer, a motor home and four-wheeler.

"We're getting better at it," Deal said of the evacuations. "You just have to roll with the punches. That's life."

Still, Deal was worried.

"I'm looking at huge (smoke) clouds and wondering if the wind will shift," he said.

The Sterling Community Center and Soldotna Sports Center were both open Tuesday for evacuees, said the Division of Forestry's Anderson. The community center housed 10 people Monday night and fed about 40 people for breakfast Tuesday, according to Ahlberg.

Other residents have also stepped in to help. On Monday night, 10 families made their way to Hooligans Lodge in Soldotna, where owner Molly Poland said she's putting up evacuees for free, just like she did for last summer's Funny River fire.

"People are losing their livelihoods right now, and it breaks my heart," Poland said. "My heart breaks for my community."

Alex DeMarban reported from the Kenai Peninsula and Laurel Andrews and Megan Edge reported from Anchorage.

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