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Emotions run high for Kenai Peninsula residents living under wildfire's cloud

FUNNY RIVER ROAD -- Crews battling the massive wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula deployed retardant Saturday to quash flames that appeared poised to move off the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and toward nearby homes.

On Moose Ridge Avenue, just to the south of Browns Lake, John Hohl spent Saturday afternoon working frantically, clearing small trees away from the cabin where he and his wife live, a home they've built over the last eight years. He said he'd worked almost straight through the last four days, sleeping no more than eight hours total.

A friend, Sam Werner, felled spruce after spruce with a chainsaw as Hohl and his brother Levi tossed them into a pickup truck, unloading a few dozen yards down the dirt road that runs past the house.

A neighbor with his own pickup, Dan Desmarais, hauled a tank back and forth from his home on nearby Browns Lake, spraying water atop Hohl's cabin and the surrounding land.

Meanwhile, huge plumes of smoke were shooting up half a mile away, where the fire was burning up to a line firefighters had cleared and sprayed with retardant -- with no guarantee the line would hold.

"We're going to clear until they tell us we can't be here," Hohl said.

Hohl, 34, is a fishing guide who works out of Bristol Bay. Earlier in the week he had been preparing his float plane to fly out before turning his focus back to protecting the cabin.

Later, he said he recognized the dangers of living in the area, with thick stands of trees hemming in his home on three sides.

"That's why we live out here," he said. "We know the risk. It's Alaska."

But he was also outraged at what he described as inadequate efforts by the managers of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge to create more of a buffer from the neighboring area where his home and others sit -- or allow residents to do so themselves.

"They won't even let you take a goddamned piece of firewood out of there, let alone stop your home from being burned," Hohl said. "You need to have fire in this type of ecosystem, but you can protect homes too."

A visible line

Moose Ridge Avenue runs parallel to the northern border of the refuge, where a break had been put in as the fire moved north toward the refuge's edge. Firefighters who had been working in Kasilof were redeployed to the area, along with helicopters carrying buckets of water and tankers dropping fire retardants. If the fire jumped the line, homes would be next in its path — homes including Hohl's.

Brad Nelson, health and safety officer with Central Emergency Services, said although there were no guarantees, firefighters were confident the break would hold.

John Hohl and his friends didn't know the details of the efforts going into protecting the border. What they did know was that in the late afternoon, Levi Hohl was informed by a firefighter that the group had to leave — it looked like the flames were getting too close.

"It's headed this way — half-mile and they can't hold it," said Levi, 27.

The group piled into a pickup truck and retreated a quarter mile down the road back to Desmarais' house, which sits on a clearing atop a rise next to Browns Lake, where they watched helicopters dumping water near the area where they'd just been working.

John Hohl was upset, yelling profanities and punching the gate of one of the pickup trucks parked in the yard. Levi watched as small planes flew overhead, hoping that each one was preceding the arrival of another tanker carrying retardant.

After an hour, the fire appeared to be receding. It turned out that the men had been asked to move so that firefighters would be able to drive unimpeded down the road next to Hohl's house -- not because the fire had jumped over the cleared line and was threatening their lives.

Asked later about Hoh's criticism that enough work hadn't been done, Central Emergency Services' Nelson pushed back, saying the wildlife refuge's managers spent "a lot of money" putting in fire buffers.

"They've worked protecting this area, so I don't really think that's a fair assessment," Nelson said.

The clearing, he added, "worked exactly like they thought it would."

"It burned up to the line, and that's where they made their stand," said Nelson.

By Saturday evening, Moose Ridge Avenue stood like a dividing line between two very different scenes. On the south side of the road, the forest was burned, still smoldering, trees scorched to skeletons, helicopters still passing overhead, ash drifting out of the sky.

On the other, trees and fresh greenery stood untouched under a smoky yellow sky.

Late-night evacuation

At more than 96,000 acres as of Saturday morning, the Funny River wildfire is now the second-largest in the refuge's 72-year history, surpassing the 80,000 acres burned in the 1969 Swanson River fire. The fire's size is now second only to the Skilak Lake fire, which burned 310,000 acres in 1947.

On Saturday, the Alaska Army National Guard sent two Black Hawk helicopters with water buckets and crews to boost firefighting efforts through Monday. Other aerial forces include five helicopters and four Canadian water-scooping air tankers. About 400 personnel are now assigned to the fire.

Approximately 1,300 residents were placed under evacuation watch Saturday morning in the communities of Funny River and Kasilof residents east of the Sterling Highway from mile 103 to Kasilof River Bridge. The advisories came as the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the western Kenai Peninsula, calling for strong south-to-southwest winds of 10 to 20 mph with gusts up to 35 mph along Cook Inlet.

Winds were expected to increase during the afternoon and peak in the evening hours, likely creating more fire activity, officials said.

A heightened sense of alert followed the wildfire's first evacuation order late Friday night. Officials issued the order for about 50 homes between milepost 103 and 105 of the Sterling Highway after suddenly strong gusts kicked up a towering wall of flame on the ridge overlooking the highway.

"A HUGE wall of flames out our window now," Fred Colvin, who lives off Heavy Down Drive near mile 105 of the highway, texted a reporter at 10:46 p.m.

The flare-up prompted a flood of anxious phone calls to emergency managers. No evacuation watch had been previously issued for people in the subdivision, but action was clearly required, according to Nelson.

"It was at that crucial point of, 'OK, we need to make a decision now,'" Nelson said.

Once the evacuation was ordered, Alaska State Troopers, Central Emergency Services and firefighters started going door to door. The subdivision emptied out within an hour, and the process went smoothly, Nelson said. Crews and equipment then moved into the area to defend structures if necessary.

"It wasn't scary until we went to leave," Colvin said in a later interview.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered at milepost 106 of the highway, watching the fire and taking pictures, said George Pierce, a Kasilof resident.

But almost as quickly as they rose up, the flames seemed to completely die down, a combination of subsiding winds and the blaze hitting swampland, Nelson said.

At 1:18 a.m., people were told they could they could return to their homes. Colvin and his wife, Cecilia, spent the night with friends in Soldotna and went back in the morning. During the day, friends came by to help cut down trees around the house.

An 'apocalyptic' scene

At a campground near Skilak Lake, the Funny River fire was a mixed bag for visitors.

Amid deep anxiety among residents over fire danger, state and federal officials on Friday issued a rare burn ban for the entire Kenai Peninsula. With campfires banned, one group cooked its steaks on a Coleman stove that left sections raw, said Katie Gutknecht, 35, who was staying for several nights with five of her friends from Kenai.

"We were just kind of standing around the table" instead of a campfire, Gutknecht said. "It was really weird."

At 2:30 p.m., it seemed like dusk at the campground as a dark cloud of smoke hung over the lake, with flames occasionally visible shooting up from the other side. Nearby clouds glowed red.

Friday's sunset, Gutknecht said, was "like a Japanese painting."

One of her friends, Loren Lee, 47, put it another way: "It's apocalyptic, man."

Little change elsewhere

Other wildfires burning in the state were holding steady Saturday, officials said.

The Tyonek fire, burning on the northwest shores of Cook Inlet, stuck at slightly more than 1,900 acres Saturday afternoon without significant growth in any direction, fire officials said. A new incident command team from Washington took over the fire's management in the morning.

"We're pretty much where we were a day ago," said fire information officer Chuck Turley.

Operations would focus on patrolling and maintaining recently constructed fire lines and mopping up around structures along the fire perimeter, Turley said.

A total of 243 personnel are assigned to the Tyonek fire, including three helicopters, two engines and three water tankers.

North of the Yukon River, the Dalton River Crossing fire remained at 500 acres Saturday and was 10 percent contained, said Pete Buist, public information officer with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks. He said crews were making good progress directing the fire, helped by damp conditions and higher humidity.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314. Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.

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