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Growing wildfire prompts evacuation watch north of Kenai River

Update, 7:30 p.m.:

The Lower Skilak Lake Campground was being evacuated Sunday evening due to threat of fire, said Michelle Weston, an Alaska Division of Forestry spokeswoman.

The campground is northeast of where the Funny River fire is currently burning, Weston said.

Meanwhile, an evacuation order in effect east of Mile 7 of Funny River Road is expected to be in effect overnight, despite rumors to the contrary, she said.

"People left and they're coming back but they can't go back in the area," Weston said. "The road is closed."

Update, 7 p.m.:

An evacuation advisory is now in effect from the end of Feuding Lane in Sterling east to the end of Kenai Keys Road, on the north side of the Kenai River.

"Forestry is on the scene, responding to spot fires in the Kenai Keys area," wrote Kenai Peninsula Borough spokeswoman Brenda Ahlberg.

Fire officials have said that embers carried by the wind have been sparking small "spot" fires in the Kenai Keys area throughout the day.

There was also a separate house fire in the Kenai Keys area, Ahlberg wrote.

A temporary Red Cross shelter is being set up at Redoubt Elementary but was not ready to open as of 6:30 p.m.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough says people evacuating to shelters should bring:

• Prescriptions and emergency medications;

• Foods that meet unusual dietary requirements;

• Extra clothing, pillows, blankets, hygiene supplies and other comfort items;

• Supplies needed for children and infants, such as diapers, formula and toys Special items for family members who are elderly or disabled.

• They should also try to contact their relatives to let them know where they are and how they are doing.

Update, 5:30 p.m.:

The Funny River fire has not jumped the Kenai River, said Bernie Pineda, a spokesman for the interagency fire command team fighting the blaze.

But wind-tossed embers from the fire have sparked small "spotting" fires on the north side of the river in the Kenai Keys area, Pineda said.

"We've got crews out there beating these things to death as we pick them up," he said.

Pineda said that as of 5 p.m. Sunday he had heard no confirmed reports of structures destroyed in the fire.

An evacuation notice for the area surrounding Funny River Road from Mile 7 east to Fisherman's Drive, including Salmon Run Drive, is in effect, Kenai Peninsula Borough spokeswoman Brenda Ahlberg wrote in an email.

Update, 4 p.m.:

An evacuation notice has been extended from mile 7 of Funny River Road to the end of the road, said Michelle Weston, a spokeswoman for the interagency team managing the fire.

Meanwhile, some area residents were complaining on the Alaska Interagency Management Team's Facebook page that they are receiving conflicting information on whether or not they should evacuate their homes.

The evacuation notice in effect for the Funny River Road area is a directive to evacuate, Weston said.

Dennis Downs, 64, watched as the fire burned across a ridge from his mother in law's house off Alaska View Lane, before an evacuation was ordered for his area.

He had worked with his wife to clear dead trees and spruce away from the home, and a sprinkler was at work wetting down the front yard, but the huge scale of the fire seemed to dwarf those efforts.

"There's a good possibility the house will burn," Downs said.

Downs' wife, Kelly, said her 79-year-old mother had already left the home she's lived in since the 1970s.

"She's just terrified her house is going to go," said Kelly Downs, 52. "Her blessing is she's got a metal roof and vinyl siding and a big yard in front of her."

A few driveways up the dirt road, Jenny Johnson, 60, said she'd been on edge Saturday evening as flames approached so close that "you could actually hear it just roaring."

Her neighbors had already moved horses off their property, and Johnson said she was also ready to go.

"Everything that's important to me is in a little white trailer," she said. "If they say get out, I'm going, and I think they can save the homes here."

Johnson said she'd been staying up late at night with neighbors, and was planning to cook cornbread and a big pot of chili Sunday evening.

But around 3 p.m., as Blackhawk helicopters with water buckets circled overhead, state troopers began circulating through her neighborhood, telling people it was time to leave.

Residents tossed their belongings, and pets, into cars and trucks, thanking firefighters on their way out.

Update, 3:25 p.m.:

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has issued an expanded evacuation notice for residents living south of Funny River Road from Mile 11 to the end of the road, borough spokeswoman Brenda Ahlberg wrote in an email.

"Homeowners are being notified by Rapid Notify, door-to-door and updated by radio," she wrote.

Original story:

A huge wildfire burning on the Kenai Peninsula has grown to more than 123,000 acres Sunday morning, with 20 percent of the fire contained, officials said.

The Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team said the Funny River fire was stoked by strong southwesterly winds for much of Saturday. By 11:30 p.m., when the winds died down, the fire was 123,649 acres.

Winds had decreased by early Sunday afternoon, said Bernie Pineda, a spokesman for the Alaska Fire Service.

"It's not going to be as strong as yesterday. Nonetheless, that's obviously going to test our lines in the north, northeast corner," Pineda said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough's Community Emergency Services expanded an evacuation watch to "include the east side of the Sterling Highway to Funny River Road, and the south side of Funny River Road" for residents in Kasilof and Soldotna, the Alaska Interagency Incident Management team said in an update. "This advisory encourages residents to prepare in case they may need to leave their homes."

As of Sunday, 457 firefighters were assigned to the fire, Pineda said. While fire lines were holding, much work was left to be done, he said.

"We're far from getting too confident that we're around the corner from buttoning this thing up," Pineda said.

Meanwhile, a different fire that started on May 19 and has burned between the villages of Tyonek and Beluga, on the western side of Cook Inlet, was holding steady at 1,906 acres on Sunday, the Department of Natural Resources said in a release. That fire had not grown significantly in the last 24 hours.

The National Weather Service says rainfall is expected in much of Southcentral Alaska on Monday, including the areas where wildfires are burning.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344 or Nat Herz at nherz@adn.com.