Relative calm descended on the Kenai Peninsula Tuesday as hundreds of people forced from their homes by a huge wildfire returned to their property and at least a little rain fell from the sky.
The rain answered the prayers of fire-weary residents spooked by the weekend's wind-whipped flames that threatened homes along Funny River Road, in the Kenai Keys area on the north side of the Kenai River and in the remote Bear Creek subdivision on Tustumena Lake.
Rain Tuesday was sparse, fire officials said, but progress on the fire and the combination of cooler temperatures, higher humidities and low winds lent a "turned the corner" feeling to the day.
"There's always a tipping point where you go from 'oh crap oh crap oh crap' to 'We're starting to get a handle,' and that's where we're at," said Brad Nelson, a Central Emergency Services health and safety officer who's become a de facto fire spokesman.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Funny River Horse Trail Fire had consumed more than 182,000 acres -- or about 284 square miles -- mostly on the 1.9 million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge where the fire started May 19. The fire, nearly contained along its western side in the Kasilof and Sterling Highway areas, has destroyed five structures, officials say. Four were recreational cabins -- only one of them privately owned -- and the other an outbuilding burned by a spot fire at Kenai Keys.
It's the second-largest fire in the refuge's history -- after a 310,000-acre fire in 1947 -- fed by black spruce and grass made tinder-dry by this spring's unseasonably warm weather and lack of rain.
The cause of the fire has not been released. There are three investigators working it, said Doug Newbould, the refuge's fire management officer.
"They did find some evidence at the point of origin," Newbould said.
The preliminary cost of fighting the fire had by Tuesday risen to $3.8 million, which reflects the number of personnel -- 670 -- and aircraft involved, Alaska Division of Forestry officials said.
Community meetings at Tustumena Elementary School and Soldotna High School were scheduled for Tuesday night. Numerous people have complained about problems getting information on evacuations and the status of the fire.
Emergency officials on Tuesday morning lifted an evacuation order covering the eastern end of Funny River Road, an area just off the Kenai River with an estimated 900 residents and 1,000 structures.
"We are home. And we are so happy," said Beth Boucher, a Funny River resident who spent the previous two nights at the Kenai River Lodge with her husband, Earl, and their two little dogs.
An evacuation advisory remained in effect, meaning area residents should still be ready to leave if necessary.
More than 300 people had registered at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex after the Funny River evacuation order was issued Sunday, according to a report from Kenai radio station KSRM.
Still, a number of residents ignored the order, locals say.
John Hohl and two other people on the east side of Brown's Lake decided to stay even after Alaska State Troopers came out and asked them to leave.
"We're pretty close out there. We kind of rely on each other," Hohl said Tuesday, describing blackened spruce forest broken by only a few islands of birch on three sides of his home. "We all had backup plans."
Hohl and the others hiked into the woods to extinguish spot fires nearby. He credited the firefighters who built a secondary fuel break after fire pushed past containment lines.
"I brought 'em coffee and king salmon from Bristol Bay," he said Tuesday.
Fire crews were also getting credit for another save.
Four or five crews camped at the water-access-only Bear Creek subdivision never left the 10 homes there even when the flames arrived, Nelson said.
"The fire came to it and around it," he said. "They were able to save everything."
The fire's growth Monday came as winds pushed it northeast toward Skilak Lake Road and east into the refuge. Crews Tuesday continued to target the fire's north perimeter, where it jumped the Kenai River above Torpedo Lake, according to Bernie Pineda, a fire information officer. The area is several miles from Kenai Keys. They were also working in the Skilak area.
Red Cross of Alaska on Tuesday closed shelters for evacuees at Redoubt Elementary and in Sterling. Eleven people spent Sunday and Monday nights at the elementary school, said Beth Bennett, spokeswoman for Red Cross. No one slept at Sterling Elementary, but a few people slept in their campers in the parking lot, she said.
Much more than actually sheltering, the shelters were a nexus for feeding people and providing information, Bennett said. The Salvation Army prepared 210 hot meals while the Redoubt Elementary shelter was open.
She said the shelter usage spoke to the level of preparedness community-wide.
"We were expecting to get inundated with people kicked out of their homes," Bennett said. "It's amazing to not, to basically be here for information and snacks. We're highly impressed with everybody's self-sufficiency."
The Lower Skilak Lake Campground, evacuated over the weekend, remained closed until further notice, officials said Tuesday morning.
Reports began to emerge Tuesday of an exodus of wildlife triggered by the blaze.
It's nesting season, so the fire probably destroyed bird eggs but other, larger animals generally move to safety, Newbould said.
Firefighters spotted a sow brown bear with cubs on the western flank of the fire, he said. Crews found a wolf den with a pup. A refuge firefighter also reported finding a newborn moose calf, initially without its mother. Crews tried to shoo off the calf until its mother came back and reclaimed it.
"It started following one of the dozer bosses around," Newbould said.
Meanwhile, fire officials said it will take consistent rainfall over several days to make a dent in the fire. Even then, it's likely there will be places still smoldering through the summer.
"We're going to have flare-ups for months," Nelson said. "That's just the reality of the situation."
The light rain that fell Tuesday could complicate this week's strategy, officials say.
Multiple days of sustained rain can help put out a fire, but "little bits of rain" are a mixed blessing, said Pete Buist, a fire information officer in Fairbanks and veteran firefighter and state forester.
Wetter conditions subdue roaring canopy fires and allow firefighters to attack hot spots. But, Buist said, damp weather also can put a stop to "one of the single most important tactics" firefighters use against wildland fire: burnouts to consume pockets of dry spruce and grass or brush around homes in hopes of starving the approaching flames.
Fire crews get wet and cold camped out in 40-degree nights. Everything gets slick.
"I can tell you, as a washed-up ground pounder myself, that these kinds of conditions are just miserable for firefighters," he said.
Reporter Devin Kelly contributed to this story. Reach Zaz Hollander at email@example.com or (907) 352-6705.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER
Alaska Dispatch Publishing