Firefighters mop up hot spots

Homer Alaska — Local Stories —
Story last updated at 12:00 AM on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 

Firefighters mop up hot spots

BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG

A week after the Mile 17 East End Road fire flared up, forcing evacuation of residents from Mile 16 all the way to the Russian Old Believer villages of Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo, wildland firefighters continued mopping up the 1,074-acre fire. By Sunday the fire had been 100-percent contained.
Photo by Michael Armstrong
A hotshot squad marches down Mountain Circle Road to put out hot spots in the area.

Wet, cool weather over the weekend kept the fire from kicking up after three divisions of Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters and numerous southcentral Alaska crews beat back the inferno late Wednesday.

«The weatherman is making us look like heroes,» Pete Buist, a fire information officer with the State Forestry, said last Friday.

Although officials call the fire contained — meaning a clear fire break is around the entire fire zone — it has not yet been called controlled. Smoke and other hot spots remain in the fire zone — spots firefighters worked all this week stump by stump to put out.

Out of about 150 structures threatened, eight buildings — including two year-round homes — were lost. At its peak, 260 firefighters worked the fire. By Tuesday, that number dropped to 184, with more leaving on Wednesday. Fire units from Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Central Emergency Services, Homer, Anchor Point and Kachemak Emergency Services provided structure defense. As of Tuesday, the estimated cost to fight the fire was $1.7 million.

Officials judged the Mile 17 fire so severe a threat that a Type I Incident Management Team took over command of the fire last Thursday — the highest level of commitment the state can offer, said Matt Weaver, a State Forestry fire information officer.

It was the first time a Type 1 Incident Management Team commanded a fire in Alaska since the 1999 fire near Delta Junction. That team handed over management to a lower level team on Wednesday.

Fire danger remained extremely high for much of Alaska, however. Gov. Sarah Palin named this week Wildland Fire Prevention and Firewise Preparedness Week, an apt reminder of the danger faced by wildland fire in the dry weeks before the land begins greening up. Red flag warnings because of low humidity had been issued on Tuesday for the Kenai Peninsula, but were dropped on Wednesday. An open burning suspension, including a ban on burn barrels, has been in effect for the lower peninsula since last Tuesday’s fire started. Campfires are permitted, but campers are urged to use extreme caution and burn only on beaches or bare gravel and to put fires out.

The Mile 17 fire began about 5:30 p.m. May 12 just east of Lusky Road near Mile 16.5 East End Road and had spread to 70 acres that night. By May 13 it had grown to over 1,000 acres. The fire had quieted down last Wednesday morning, but erratic winds that afternoon stirred the fire up. Weather conditions last week were sunny with temperatures in the 50s and humidity in the 20s.

«We had a blow out,» is how Weaver described last Wednesday.

Alaska State Troopers went door-to-door in the fire zone last Wednesday afternoon, strongly advising residents to evacuate. Communication had been erratic, with spotty cell phone coverage in some areas and with some provides. Landline phones were out sporadically, too.

Last Friday, ACS Alaska engineers put in a booster at towers in the area, increasing coverage, said Heather Cavanaugh with ACS corporate communications.

East End Road was closed from Mile 16 east until Saturday, first opening to local traffic on Saturday and then to all traffic by Monday.

Fire engines and crews remain on the road or nearby, and residents are urged to be extremely cautious on the narrow, winding road.

Troopers led a convoy of evacuees through thick smoke last Wednesday night, in some cases with flames on either side of the road. About 40 people evacuated, according to the Alaska Red Cross. The Alaska Red Cross set up a shelter at Homer High School. Most people stayed with family or friends in town, however.

Witnesses said the fire started near a downed power line. Homer Electric Association could not confirm that, said Joe Gallagher, an HEA spokesman. The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Fire officials could not say when the investigation would be completed.

HEA cut power to 293 customers last Tuesday for the safety of firefighters working near lines. Power was restored to all customers about midnight Friday after HEA and State Forestry determined it was safe, Gallagher said. HEA crews had repaired the line May 13 before the fire flared up, but did not re-energize it because of safety concerns.

From Lusky Road to the edge of Voznesenka village, a jagged, cigar-shaped area on a map showed the extent of the 1,074-acre fire.

It took walking the fire zone to begin to understand how fast, far and fickle the fire spread. North of Eastland Canyon, the fire not only jumped East End Road — it had roared almost a mile on the north side.

In places, the landscape looked like a nuclear holocaust, acre after acre of black, scorched earth, with craggy stumps and trees sticking out of gray ash. Patches of green or brown grass spotted other areas next to black ground. Water-saturated alders and willows had been barely touched next to burned spruce trees. Where the fire crossed the road, the ditches might still be unburned, but either side was charred yards off the road.

A federal disaster has been declared, but that only means that Federal Emergency Management Agency grant money will be paid to support state and local governments. No FEMA loans will be made to private citizens.

The Mile 17 fire affected Kachemak Bay State Park, private land and Cook Inlet Region Inc. land. The area includes parcels of logged and unlogged beetle-kill spruce, willow and alder, blue-joint grass, and mowed and unmowed hay fields, as well as other vegetation. Many areas, particularly the state park, have rough terrain and no road access.

Throughout the fire area, crews continued to walk the burned ground, searching for hot spots. Wisps of smoke rose up from piles of old logging slash, stumps or downed trees. Firefighters cut up logs to check for burning, and dug into the ground with Pulaski axes looking for hot embers. Stretching hoses from fire engines, the crews wet down areas of white ash. Firefighters focused on the remaining smoldering spots — thousands of them, Buist said — to keep embers from flaring up on a dry, windy day.

«The heavy things that have heat in them will come back to haunt us,» Buist said.

«There’s still heat out there,» said Rob Allen, operations section manager for the fire, last Saturday. «If we get a couple days of sun, a couple days of wind, it could flare back up.»

That was part of the mop up: finding those hot spots and firming up bulldozer lines around homes. Most of the «slops,» as firefighters call them, were in the area north of East End Road.

«We’re now going from stump hole to stump hole and getting those trees on the ground,» Allen said.

One home that survived was Aron Peterson’s house at the ed of Mountain View Circle. Wide lawns and cleared space surrounded his house. Peterson had a Firewise expert visit his home last year, and he took his advice. «It was Firewise that saved my house,» he said.

Weaver encouraged people to review the checklist of the Firewise program. Visit http://www.firewise.org for guidelines. These include clearing a 30-foot safety zone around homes and moving flammable materials such as woodpiles away from homes. Firewise materials are at local fire halls.

For more information on the Mile 17 fire, call State Forestry’s fire information line at 235-2851.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michaelarmstrong.@homernews.com

http://www.homernews.com/stories/052009/news_1_004.shtml

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