Story last updated at 4:27 p.m. Thursday, June 20, 2002

Full-court press saves East End homes from fire
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Tim Yarbrough of the Homer Volnteer Fire Department works on the mop-up effort.  
Firefighters and East End Road residents received a wake-up call Friday when a controlled burn at Jones Road got briefly out of hand despite greenup conditions.

The 1-acre blaze, which prompted an all-out response from nearly every available firefighter on the Lower Kenai Peninsula, came very close to destroying landowner Pat Yourkowski's house.

"If that house had gone up, we'd have had sparks and embers getting carried up and there'd have been spot fires all downwind of us," Forestry helicopter pilot M.G. Horde said as he pointed across a field at the stands of dead spruce beyond. "It would have been a real serious situation."

Firefighters from the Alaska Division of Forestry, the Homer Volunteer Fire Department and the Eastland Volunteer Fire Department all mobilized and the attack that followed was a collaborative effort. Some fast bulldozer work and three direct hits on the burning roof with the Forestry helicopter water bucket were key to saving the building and perhaps to preventing a much bigger fire, said Terry Anderson, Forestry firefighter and commander of the Friday's effort.

With the wind blowing briskly at times from the east, a wider fire might have moved off toward McNeil Canyon and town.

One of the first firefighters on the scene, Anderson wasn't taking any chances and immediately radioed for a Palmer-based slurry bomber, which was later called back en route.

Sharon Roesch, a state Forestry fire prevention officer, said Yourkowski lit his slash pile without an adequate firebreak and the fire spread into green grasses as a tricky wind fanned flames into other debris and standing trees adjacent to his home.

Before long, flames had erupted on an acre of land around the house, burning a pottery kiln and an old bus, among other sundry items. Flames crossed onto a neighbor's property. The house on that property was approximately 100 feet from the eastern edge of the flames, upwind.

photo: news
  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Smoke obscures Pat yourkowski's house, near Mile 18 of East End road, following a battle that saved the structure Friday afternooon.  
Several tall spruce trees standing on the north side of Yourkowski's house became fully engulfed in flame as firefighters arrived and embers from the trees landed on the cedar-shingled roof.

After the initial flames on the roof were doused and the fire in surrounding trees and debris was brought under control, the house looked miraculously unscathed. The only sign that it had been on the brink of destruction was the presence of the torched-out spruce trees standing just a few feet away and a few blackened shingles.

Anderson was amazed the roof didn't fully ignite.

"When you see a cedar shake roof that's burning, really, it's almost a write-off at that point," Anderson said. "Luckily, M.G. put (the buckets) on target."

The slash-pile burn, which had been legally permitted through state Forestry, got out of hand despite the lush green landscape that emerged along with recent rainy weather.

On Sunday, Forestry suspended all burn permits on the Kenai Peninsula.

"East End Road is just another example of the burnability even after greenup," Roesch said. "Now, without the rain, we're in high to extreme fire danger again, especially as the wind begins to blow in the afternoon."

The East End residents haven't forgotten the Mansfield Road fire of 1999, when a June controlled burn raced off to claim 75 acres, narrowly missing dozens of homes.

Anxiety got the better of some people on Friday as calls poured into the Homer Police dispatcher, inquiring about the nature of the fire.

"Calling dispatch to ask what's going on is the wrong thing to do," Homer Police Sgt. Jim Hibpshman said. He added that, in a situation like Friday's, radio and phone communications from emergency personnel are enough for dispatchers to deal with. Likewise, curious onlookers driving out to catch a glimpse of the fire don't help the flow of fire crews and their equipment, Hibpshman said.