With just a few minutes notice, families in Funny River were evacuated Sunday afternoon as firefighters fought to contain the 156,041 acre wildfire that lit several hot spots inside of a fire break between the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and more than 1,000 residents.
As flames encroached, the reaction was quick but chaotic as state forestry firefighters told Central Emergency Services firefighters that an evacuation was necessary and the information was relayed faster than the order could be clarified.
The initial evacuation began at about 2:40 p.m. between Tachick Avenue and Rabbit Run Road expanded to include all residents on both sides of Funny River Road between Mile 7 and Fisherman’s Road by 4:30 p.m. Just before 5 p.m. the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management issued an evacuation advisory from the end of Feuding Land through the end of Kenai Keys Road. While residents on the south, or fire side, of the road had been under an evacuation advisory, residents to the north whose property borders the Kenai River were not.
People who left were blocked from returning by Alaska State Troopers and Alaska Department of Natural Resources – Division of Forestry personnel. No one was being allowed in by press time Sunday and it is unclear when they will be allowed to return.
Cars packed with family heirlooms, clothes, pets and kids and pickups with all-terrain vehicles in the box or hauling boats or trailers lined up at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex where residents were told to meet upon evacuation.
As firefighters and borough staff went door-to-door, called people and broadcast on the radio that the evacuation was under way, Funny River Road filled with people hauling their belongings away from the massive wildfire. The road is now open just to emergency vehicles and the silence is broken only by the thump of helicopters blades and water-scooping planes in the distance.
The exodus was made more complicated by the continued dry weather and each car kicking up clouds of dust on the gravel and dirt roads that snake off of the paved Funny River road. Emergency vehicles, even with their lights flashing, were hard to see and several cars had to pull off of to the side quickly to avoid them.
The borough called the evacuation precautionary and no homes have been reported burned in Funny River as of press time — although a hotspot lit across the river in the Kenai Keys community and burned a trailer. Residents of that community are now under an evacuation advisory.
Kris Eriksen, a public information officer with the National Incident Management Organization, served as PIO at the sports complex during the evacuation. She said with a dense fuel source in that area, the goal is to get people out safely before embers are raining down on them. Getting residents out early also frees up the road for fire crews.
Residents were asked to go to check in at the sports complex to make sure people were accounted for. Members of the borough’s Community Emergency Response Team signed people in, collected phone numbers and addresses of where evacuees planned to stay.
The American Red Cross set up a temporary emergency shelter at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna. OEM advised evacuees should bring the following items to the shelter: prescriptions and emergency medications, food, clothing, pillows, blankets, hygiene supplies and supplies needed for children, babies, disabled or elderly family members.
While some people had friends or family to stay with, others were parked in the lot of the sports complex and tried to figure out where to go.
Pete Feigum and his wife had just flown up to Alaska from Washington State Sunday. The couple has a cabin on Funny River Road; they come up every summer. While Feigum said he hopes he still has a cabin by the end of the fire, he realizes he doesn’t have any control in the situation.
“It is what it is,” he said.
His neighbor, whose home is on Funny River Road, said he wasn’t expecting to evacuate because crews were able to knock down the fire Saturday night when it twice made runs for the road.
Cris Lee said she thought it was a little “iffy” after the activity Saturday night whether or not she and her husband would be asked to evacuate.
“This is impossible to control,” she said about the fire.
When they did get the message to go, they loaded up the dogs and headed to the sports complex.
“It’s just a house,” Lee said about her home near Browns Lake.
The fire activity Saturday was enough to encourage Amanda Hobson, who lives near Lake Road and Leann Avenue, to pack up and head over to a friend’s house that night.
Harry Pierce and his wife also moved in with some friends in Sterling on Saturday.
He said they gathered important papers, jewelry, the sewing machine and clothes when they prepared to leave.
“You have such a hard time deciding what to take,” he said.
Earlier in the week, Pierce said he watched spruce trees burn from bottom to top in the fire earlier this week. It was quick, he said, like zipping up a zipper.
“It’s impossible to stop this thing with this wind,” he said about the fire.
Kim Medley and her family packed up a few select items Saturday and she was glad they were prepared for the evacuation. She said during the past few days with the wildfire growing, she has experienced a mix of different emotions — mostly anxiety and fear. But she’s accepted things could get worse.
“If your home gets burned, it’s just one of those things,” she said. … “You just have to grow from it.”
Kaylee Osowski and Rashah McChesney are reporters for the Peninsula Clarion.