Update 7:45 a.m. Wednesday:
The Funny River Fire has grown to more than 20,000 acres, according to a Wednesday morning update from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.
Fire came close to but did not cross Funny River Road on the north flank of the fire overnight thanks to fire crews, air support and an existing fuel break, according to the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team's Facebook page.
Firefighters are focusing on securing the north flank on Funny River and the southwest corner to safeguard the community of Kasilof, the update says. Significant smoke is blanketing Soldotna.
Low humidity and high winds, combined with competing nearby fires such as one across Cook Inlet between Tyonek and Beluga, have stretched firefighting resources thin, "making containment difficult," authorities say. The fire was estimated at 21,618 acres.
The immediate need for help is clear in the incident commander's dramatic list of critical resource needs in the report: five hot shot crews; eight dozers plus heavy-equipment operators and bosses; and 10 initial-attack crews with five strike-team leader crews. Water scooping planes "are a must" since they can get water from nearby Tustumena Lake.
-- Zaz Hollander
TUESDAY EVENING STORY:
A wildfire burning near Soldotna more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to nearly 7,000 acres in dry, windy conditions and low humidity, fire officials said.
No homes or structures were threatened as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, and no evacuation orders were in place, officials said. Heavy black plumes of smoke, visible from Anchorage and pushed by northern winds, darkened the skies over the southern end of the Peninsula. A satellite image showed the plume stretching well beyond Kodiak Island into the Gulf of Alaska.
The wildfire, which originated near Funny River Road, burned a southerly path Tuesday to Tustumena Lake and spread east and west along the lake's shore. Called the Funny River Horse Trail Fire, the wildfire reached 10 miles in length, stretching from south of the Soldotna airport to the lake and about a mile wide, broadening at the shore of the lake, officials said.
Andy Alexandrou, spokesman for the Division of Forestry, said the fire was determined to have been caused by humans, but exactly what sparked the blaze was unclear.
Crews spent Tuesday concentrating efforts on the southern end of the fire as well as the western flank, which is closest the Sterling Highway and people's homes. He said the fire had spread to within about five miles from homes as of noon Tuesday.
Forty people were on the fire lines, and more resources were on the way. A Type 2 incident management team with six more crews was scheduled to arrive in Soldotna at 6 p.m. to take over the fire fighting efforts, said Michelle Weston, spokeswoman for the team. A command post was set up at Skyview High School south of Soldotna.
A red flag warning for high winds was scheduled to last until 9 p.m. Tuesday. Winds started gusting about 8 a.m., blowing from the north at 35 and 40 miles per hour, and diminishing very slowly during the day, said Christian Cassel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Anchorage Office.
Cassel said forecasters do not expect the wind to change directions through Thursday, critical for firefighting efforts. The fire is burning through extremely dry terrain, eating up black spruce and pockets of unburned fuel, Alexandrou said.
On Tuesday afternoon in Kasilof, Fred Colvin and his wife, Cecilia, had packed their bags.
"We thought, 'Well, if the wind changes, we're gonna be toast if we don't get out of here," Fred Colvin said, adding that the fire appeared to be about four miles away from their home.
The Colvins, both retired teachers, have lived near milepost 105 of the Sterling Highway for 32 years.
At the Kasilof Mercantile Store near milepost 109 on the Sterling Highway, Nancy Russell said it was bright and sunny as she drove to work at 6 a.m. Tuesday. But by 11 a.m., the sky started to cloud with smoke, and it was dark by 2 p.m., she said.
Customers brought in "horrible" photos of the smoke throughout the day, Russell said. She said people were picking up their children from school early and taking animals to safety.
"People are on very high alert," she said. "It's pretty scary. This is a first for me, I've been here 15 years but haven't seen anything like this."
A number of sled dog kennels are in the Kasilof area, and kennel owners were nervously watching the progress of the wildfire, said Tammy Murray, the director of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.
Veteran Iditarod musher Paul Gebhardt said late Tuesday afternoon that the skies were clear near his kennel on the west side of the Sterling Highway, but that if the wind changed, he planned to move his dogs to the beach about a mile away.
In Homer, more than 60 miles south of Kasilof, residents reported ash falling like snow.
"It was like being in Fairbanks for the summer," said Debbie Speakman, director of member relations at the Homer Chamber of Commerce. It was difficult to breathe, she said.
Smoke hung in a haze over Kachemak Bay. Jackie Johnson, who co-owns the Boardwalk Bakery on the Homer spit, described it as a "really thick fog that smells like a campfire."
Homer-area schools had indoor recess and canceled outdoor field trips.
Reach Devin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY and ZAZ HOLLANDER