The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Seward crews join Funny River firefight


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

A team of U.S. Forest Service fire fighters from the Seward and the Tongas Ranger Districts: Tim George, Matt Thompson, Phil Ingersol and Morris Wilber gather at a Soldotna gas station after paroling the region for fires. They were the initial responders to a spot fire on Sunday that started at the Kenai River, actually crossing it, and burning over 200 acres.

On Sunday three Seward Volunteer Fire Department firefighters joined a force of over 670 battling a wildfire that, as of Tuesday, raged over more than 182,000 acres and had threatened to spill over into nearby residential neighborhoods. The spruce tree-fueled inferno, dubbed the Funny River Wildfire, has largely been confined to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since it was first spotted on May 19.

Over the past week the so-called megafire has grown into the largest forest fire on the Kenai Peninsula in modern history and one of the largest in Alaska. Formerly, the most recent large wildfire in the region was the destructive 1996 Miller's Reach Fire near Big Lake in the Mat-Su Borough. That fire burned only 37,000 acres but consumed 433 homes and other structures before it was contained.

According to a posting by the team of government agencies managing the fire fighting effort, the blaze started near a turnout and parking area for the Funny River Horse Trail. This trailhead, at mile 7 Funny River Road near Soldotna, is frequented by equestrians and hikers alike and is one of a handful of pullouts along the 20-mile paved rural highway where motorists can stop. Beyond the far end of Funny River Road, unpaved back country lanes wind along the Kenai River east, nearly all the way to Skilak Lake.

The firefighting effort, managed by the National Interagency Fire Center and headed by U.S. Forest Service supervisor Rob Allen, was joined by the Seward firefighters including engineer and retired fire chief Dave Squires, assistant chief Sean Corrigan, and lieutenant Austin Chapman. Last week, U.S. Forest Service employees from the Crown Point work center had also been detailed to provide support for the fire fighting effort.

Upon arriving, Squires was assigned to head a team patrolling streets off of the end of Funny River Road, looking for hot spots. Corrigan and Chapman began patrolling the Kenai River by boat, scanning the shores for signs where the fire had jumped over the river. By Tuesday the Sewardites were back in SFD's Rescue 1 vehicle, joining the crews assigned to protecting homes and other structures in the Kenai Keys neighborhood.

On Tuesday the fire, although classified as only 30 percent contained, had shifted away from threatening the most populated neighborhoods along the south banks of the Kenai River. Many homes were protected by expanded fire breaks as bulldozers and ground crews had cleared away burnable material.

According to numerous accounts, water and fire retardant dropped from aircraft have also played a critical role. At last report, evacuation orders and advisories had been cancelled as wind and available fuel drove new burning further back into the wildlife refuge and east toward Skilak Lake campgrounds.

Effects in Seward have been limited to intermittent haze and the smell of wood fire which started on May 20, then increased noticeably Friday as winds brought heavier smoke to the area. The smoke gradually cleared Sunday and clear blue skies returned to the area for Memorial Day as winds shifted, sending smoke and ash north to Anchorage over the weekend. Clouds moved into the Resurrection Bay area overnight and a light rain began to fall early Tuesday morning.

Prior to the outbreak, the entire Southcentral Alaska region was subject to a red flag alert because of abnormally dry conditions, largely because of low snowfall over the winter. Despite cloudy skies and some ongoing rain showers, conditions are not expected to improve sufficiently in the next few days to see the peninsula-wide burn ban lifted. All outdoor fires are prohibited until further notice.

Click here for current fire status.


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