A large, fast-moving wildfire that forced evacuations and destroyed two homes and a library in the Kodiak Island village of Chiniak appeared to have calmed down by late Friday as residents returned home and firefighters continued to tackle hot spots, emergency officials said.
"It's not a raging fire right now. It's active, but not raging," said Aimee Kniaziowski, emergency services director for the Kodiak Island Borough, Friday evening.
Photos of the wind-driven wildfire taken earlier, around midnight Thursday, showed gray smoke billowing around large orange flames that topped trees. Residents of Chiniak began evacuating around 11 p.m. Thursday. Early Friday morning, the Kodiak Police Department urged people still in the village of about 50 to leave quickly as the fire burned quickly.
"It was enormous," Kniaziowski said. "I've never seen anything quite like that. The flames were maybe 75 feet high, and you could see them across the bay. You could see them topping and jumping from one tree to the next."
A shelter opened Thursday night at Kodiak Middle School in the city of Kodiak, roughly 45 miles away by road. Eight people showed up, but only two stayed overnight, said Kathrynn Hollis-Buchanan, the disaster action team leader for the Red Cross in Kodiak. By Friday morning, only one person was left -- the other went to work, she said.
"Most of the people last night were pretty shocked," she said. "They didn't want to stay here. I think a lot of people didn't want to leave their homes."
Chiniak resident Peter Hanley was one of the locals who chose not to leave. He described Chiniak as a small community spread over about seven miles of road. The homes are largely grouped in two clusters on either end, he said. He lives on the end farther from the flames, but he said he drove a few miles on Thursday night to get a closer look.
"I've never seen a wildfire before, but it's very scary," he said. "It's actually kind of amazing -- the sky was lit up. Apparently, you can see the fire from the city of Kodiak. Someone called last night and told us they could."
Hanley said the fire didn't appear to threaten his waterfront home as the winds whipped flames in the opposite direction. But should the wind change, he said, he might have to evacuate. By late Friday, he said the winds quieted.
Residents in nearby Pasagshak were also put on fire watch early Friday morning, but the Emergency Operations Center lifted the watch around 1:45 p.m.
The Kodiak Area Emergency Services Organization reported late Friday that two homes in Chiniak and the Chiniak Public Library burned in the fire. Earlier reports had said that flames destroyed a third home and possibly a school, but Nova Javier, public information officer for the organization, said that wasn't true.
Emergency officials said no one was injured in the fire and the majority of Chiniak remained untouched, though sporadic hot spots and wind-blown embers led to smoke and haze in the area.
By Friday evening, the Kodiak Area Emergency Services Organization estimated the fire had scorched about 2,000 acres, most of that area uninhabited.
The fire, she said, "did not appear to be anywhere near the scope that it was in the early morning hours, so we're feeling pretty good about that."
Fire crews continued to fight the flames Friday evening, Kniaziowski said. Some had flown to the island from around Southcentral Alaska. A 15-person crew from the state Division of Forestry was inspecting the area Friday afternoon and extinguishing any hot spots, she said.
The crew established a headquarters and staging area at the Chiniak School, said a statement from the Kodiak Area Emergency Services Organization. The statement said access to the Chiniak area remained blocked for non-residents. Emergency officials asked the public to stay away from the headquarters.
The Kodiak Area Emergency Services Organization said late Friday that the cause of the fire remained unknown. It was believed to have started around 8:30 p.m.
Rumors circulated that a downed power line sparked the blaze, but Kodiak Electric Association President and CEO Darron Scott said the company had no confirmation that a line went down.
It did receive reports of power outages in the Chiniak area around 9 p.m. Thursday, Scott said. Crews were dispatched and the power was eventually shut off. No other Kodiak Island communities lost power.
Tim Mowry, Division of Forestry information officer, said winds of up to 60 mph helped spread the flames quickly overnight.
A forecast from the National Weather Service Friday morning said winds in the Kodiak area would weaken to about 35 mph by Friday night. Winds Thursday afternoon began blowing ash from the 1912 eruption of Mount Katmai over parts of Kodiak Island. The ash was expected to cause further reduced visibility and poor air quality.
Mowry said that weather recently had remained dry and windy in Kodiak -- unusual conditions for this time of year, he said.
He said the Division of Forestry had minimal initial attack resources in Alaska on Friday because they were all Outside fighting other blazes. The division had ordered four crews that just returned to the state, he said. "Not sure how quickly we can get them there."
The shelter at Kodiak Middle School had closed Friday, Kodiak emergency services said, and anyone in need of shelter should call the Red Cross at 907-942-5059.
The Kodiak Rodeo and State Fair offered to help house the livestock of evacuees. Fair president Bonnie Stratman said anyone needing help can call her at 907-942-7529.
Evacuees may also bring household pets needing temporary shelter to the Kodiak Animal Shelter. Nicole Wilson, who works for the Kodiak Police Department's animal control unit, said boarding fees and impound fees were being waived temporarily. The shelter also had boxes filled with pet supplies for any evacuees who had left those behind.