Story last updated at 4:34 PM on Wednesday, May 13, 2009



By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

A 70-acre wildland fire that had quieted down Tuesday night flared up Wednesday afternoon, increasing to 100 acres and threatening about 40 homes in the Jones Road and Falls Creek Road area about Mile 17 East End Road.


Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

A State Forestry helicopter lands in a hayfield off Lusky Road.

Firefighters called for all available resources as southwesterly winds pushed the fire from mixed timber and grass in Kachemak Bay State Park into the neighborhood. Firefighters ordered an evacuation at 4:15 p.m. of all residents east of Mile 16.

East End Road was shut down between Lusky Road and Jones Road about 2:30 p.m. Shelters for people stranded on either side are being set up at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Church at Mile 2.5 East End Road and in Voznesenka.

At press time, the Mile 17 fire had turned ugly. As many as 100 firefighters, including local departments, were on the scene Wednesday.

Because of the extreme fire conditions, all burning was suspended Monday. State Forestry is posting updates on the fire on its burn permit line at (907) 260-4269.

The fire started in windy, hot weather conditions about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. Thick smoke rolled over the road and spruce trees popped off like Roman candles as firefighters tried to keep the fire within a small valley northeast of Lusky Road.

The fire started near a powerline, and at least one pole caught fire. HEA cut power from Mile 17 to the end of the road about 5:30 p.m., turning off power to about 290 customers. HEA planned to send crews in to repair the line as soon as it was safe.

A downed power line started the fire, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. HEA could not confirm that, said spokesman Joe Gallagher, and would be investigating the cause of the fire with State Forestry.

No structures burned in the fire on Tuesday, but crews from the Alaska Division of Forestry, Kachemak Emergency Services and Homer Volunteer Fire Department worked into Wednesday morning to keep eight homes threatened nearby from burning.

"I couldn't sleep all night," said Mary Wood, whose house off East End Road just north of Lusky Road was one of the homes closest to the fire. "I kept seeing the flickering in the window. Holy cow."

Firefighters and heavy-equipment operators put in lines between Wood's house and the fire. At one point the fire came within 20 yards of her house. A flame-retardant tanker dropped orange retardant on Wood's house, truck and yard -- even her dog.

By Tuesday, State Forestry had about 35 firefighters in two crews working the fire. Eight smokejumpers from the Bureau of Land Management also parachuted in, landing in a hayfield at the end of Lusky Road. Three more 20-person crews were on order and due to arrive Wednesday or today. Tanker 52, the retardant aircraft, dropped five loads of retardant on the fire Tuesday night. A State Forestry helicopter continued to drop bucket loads of water on the fire. Ice had just broken this week on nearby lakes.

Alaska State Troopers closed East End Road about 9 p.m. Tuesday, and reopened it to one-lane traffic for local residents later. Troopers asked people to avoid the area if possible. Fire and water trucks clogged the narrow, windy road near the fire scene. Moore and Moore Services had sent its whole water tanker fleet to the scene.

"I hope no one needs any water," Lloyd Moore said. "They'll be awfully thirsty."

Heavy equipment operators responded within a half hour to the fire. Many of them live in the area. With huge front-end loaders or bulldozers the operators tore up fresh dirt, trying to contain the fire. Firefighters in yellow shirts and helmets moved behind dozers on the fire, advancing like foot soldiers with tanks on the battlefield.

About half the fire was in Kachemak Bay State Park, said Alaska State Parks Kenai Superintendent Jack Sinclair. On Wednesday morning, State Forestry said 40 percent of the fire had been contained, mostly on the East End Road side of the fire, with the uncontained end in the park. East End Road residents about 10 years ago had asked State Parks to log the beetle-killed spruce trees in the park, but the decision then was to leave the park in its natural state. Sinclair said State Parks would support building trails in that section of the park.

"A trail system in that park would create dual-purpose fire breaks and public use," he said. "The state would like to move in that direction eventually."

State Forestry intends to suppress the fire 100 percent in the park because of its proximity to homes, Sinclair said.

At several times the fire roared up to East End Road, sending thick smoke across the road. A Kachemak Emergency Services crew with a vintage Forestry brush truck knocked back one such fire. On Tuesday the fire had not jumped East End Road.

Although firefighters could work the edges of the fire from the road, thick brush and steep terrain made it difficult to get down into the fire. Firefighters were laying hoselines on Wednesday, said Sharon Roesch with State Forestry.

Wood said the Mile 17 fire reminded her of the Miller's Reach fire near Big Lake. A medical assistant at Homer Medical Clinic, Wood worked as a medic on the Miller's Reach fire. She and her family had asked firefighters if they needed to evacuate or get ready to go.

"They said, 'Well, you know, it might not be a bad idea,'" Wood said.

She and her partner, Vincent Cobler, packed their guns and clothes. Wood's daughter stayed in town with friends.

"It was intense. I panicked a little," Wood said. "It could have got ugly. I know how fire work."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at