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Kenai Peninsula residents watch nervously as wildfire grows

Nervous residents steeled themselves for possible evacuation as officials reported Wednesday evening that the Funny River wildfire burning in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge had covered more than 44,000 acres of woodland and scrub.

Flames roared through dry spruce and grass and left parts of the Kenai Peninsula shrouded in an acrid gray-brown cloud that snaked up to Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough and down to Kodiak.

After describing the fire as "more than 20,000 acres" for most of the day, fire officials released the new and strikingly specific estimate of 44,423 acres Wednesday evening, citing improved mapping.

Fire officials urged residents near the fire to clear debris and firewood away from their homes and have a family evacuation plan just in case. By nightfall, no evacuation orders had been issued.

Updated maps showed the fire's southern flank about three miles from Bear Creek, a water-accessible subdivision within the refuge. Its western flank was about three and half miles from Pallard Loop subdivision along the Sterling Highway. To the north was Fox Lake and to the east Coal Creek Lake, said fire spokeswoman Michelle Weston.

The fire started near Funny River Road on Monday and was pushed by wind south to Tustumena Lake, where it spread east and west along the shore. Officials said the lack of a natural cause like lightning led them to conclude it was started by people in an area open to recreation, but they had no information about a specific cause.

Crews spent Wednesday building bulldozer lines on the northwest corner of the fire. Recent efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the buildup of beetle-killed spruce along the Funny River Road helped stop the fire's advance, Weston said.

"It basically did what we expected it to today," Weston said. "It blew more into the refuge area."

An old burn site left by the 2009 Shanta Creek fire slowed the fire's expansion east, Weston said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough's Central Emergency Services crews were planning to stand by through the night and possibly conduct burnout operations on the northern side of the fire near Funny River Road. On Thursday, water-scooping planes from Alberta will be dropping a line of water on the western and northern flanks of the fire. Additional engines from the Central Mat-Su Fire Department helped with structure protection.

Firefighters saved the historic Nurse's Cabin on the refuge at the mouth of the Kasilof River with a combination of retardant and sprinklers, Weston said.

As of Wednesday evening, the fire had also not affected two transmission lines owned by the Homer Electric Association and located just east of the Sterling Highway. Joe Gallagher, the utility's spokesman, said the cooperative flew over the area several times during the past two days and the fire remained about five miles away.

Meteorologists are forecasting that Wednesday's westerly winds will die down overnight, picking back up to 10 to 15 mph Thursday afternoon. Smoke from the fire will likely descend onto Soldotna by morning and trail northeast into Anchorage and also spread south, said the National Weather Service.

Residents outside Soldotna and Kasilof have warily watched the progress of the fire since it began Monday.

Brian Porterfield's family owns a house, two cabins and a sauna on the Kasilof River, four river miles north of Tustumena Lake. With ash and smoke in the air, the family was preparing Wednesday night to wet the ground with hoses and pumps, and planned to stand guard through the night in case the fire approached, Porterfield said.

"We're setting alarms every hour," said Porterfield, 37.

A number of people said they had packed up personal belongings and were simply waiting for word. John Bunge, 73, who lives four miles northwest of Funny Creek Road, said he skipped a job training Wednesday to help his wife box up medicine, important papers, clothes and valuables.

Daniel Gentry, 27, said some of his family members who live on Funny River Road had begun packing up photographs as flames crept toward the road's edge a few miles from where they live.

"There's flames on the ground, there's flames in the trees," he said, describing the forest across the road on refuge land. "Pretty much every which way there's flames."

Earlier in the day, worried residents said they were frustrated by the stagnant pace of updates from officials on the status of the fire.

"The lack of information has been the hard thing," said Larry Moore, 72, of Kasilof.

By afternoon, the Kenai Peninsula Borough had set up a hot line for public questions, (907) 714-2495. People could also register their cellphone numbers to receive information.

Weston acknowledged the problems communicating with residents and said mapping delays stemmed from a lack of available aircraft and smoky conditions. She said officials planned to increase public outreach starting Thursday.

Two community meetings have been scheduled. One for Funny Creek Road residents is set for 8 p.m. Thursday at Funny River Road Community Center, and another for Kasilof residents at Tustumena Elementary is set for 6 p.m. Thursday. Those meetings will include updates on the fire's activities and maps to show where the fire is relative to people's homes, Weston said.

Devin Kelly (dkelly@adn.com) reported from Kasilof, Zaz Hollander (zhollander@adn.com) from Wasilla and Tegan Hanlon (thanlon@adn.com) from Anchorage.

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