Story last updated at 3:20 p.m. Friday, August 9, 2002

Lightning sparks East End blaze
By Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

Electrical storms in the skies over Homer are a rarity, lightning strikes even rarer.

But strikes were the cause of two Homer wildland fires last week that began in dead spruce trees and spread throughout the surrounding areas. A spokesman with the Alaska Division of Forestry said they were the first lightning-caused fires on the lower Kenai Peninsula in memory.

"I've lived here almost all my life, and I've seen occasional cloud-to-cloud lightning, but I've never seen any that struck anything before," said Marge Tillion, an East End Road resident whose property was the site of one of the fires. "I was standing there in the barn, doing some haying, when all that thunder cut loose."

The larger of the two fires, the Circle Lake Fire, began shortly after 3 p.m. July 31 on Tillion's land. Within an hour, the fire had grown to between 6 and 8 acres in an area inaccessible by road.

About two hours later, a helicopter crew involved in the Circle Lake Fire spotted another fire near the headwaters of the Anchor River. The two-person crew put down and controlled the fire, which was about one-tenth of an acre.

Crews from the Homer Fire Department and the Division of Forestry contained the Circle Lake Fire with the help of tankers and other aircraft, and crews from Fairbanks, Soldotna, Kenai and the Mat-Su area.

By the following morning, the Circle Lake Fire was about 60 percent out, said Ric Plate, fire management officer for the Division of Forestry. It was completely "mopped up" by Friday.

"We usually don't get lightning down that far in Homer," Plate said. "When we do, it's usually what we call 'wet lightning,' which has rain associated with it."

Plate said the crews worked efficiently and without injury.

"It's been a good year that way," he said.

Though Alaska's legislated fire season runs through the end of September, Aug. 1 is generally considered the end of the high-risk season in the Homer area. The Division of Forestry typically shuts down its local offices and lays off its employees.

"This year, it's been a high-danger year because we haven't had the rains," Plate said. "We had some heavy rains, but those typically run off. The steady soaks and drizzles tend to seep in better and reduce the fire danger. Because it's been so dry the last week, we're getting right back up there in terms of danger again."

Plate said that the Homer office will start gearing down, but will remain open for the time being.

Tillion, herself a firefighter who has battled lightning-caused blazes in the Lower 48, said she watched as the lightning hit a nearby stand of dead trees.

"It wasn't like a bolt of lightning, it was more like a flash, and a crack," she said. "I watched pretty closely, because it sounded like it hit something." Tillion's 160 acres spread down a ridge and across a meadow, she said, and are covered with spruce bark beetle-killed trees "all the way to Anchor Point."

After about half-a-minute, the tops of some trees burst into flames, she said. Tillion called in the fire, and let the crews know that access would best be achieved with aircraft.

"They put on quite an air show," she said. "They did a great job. There was no wind at all, and we're lucky. If the wind had been blowing, we could have had some damage to some of the houses and cabins nearby."