ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A blitzkrieg of fires burning on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough continued to spread uncontrollably throughout the day Thursday, state fire officials said.
Lighting storms and human activity had sparked 28 mostly minor fires in the Susitna Valley by late Thursday, while a continuously growing fire on the Kenai Peninsula was still out of control. All told, two cabins have been confirmed destroyed, and many more are in danger of burning. No injuries had been reported.
As a result, the state has ordered 10 hotshot crews from the lower 48 states, along with other needed firefighting equipment, state fire officials said. When they arrive, they may be sent anywhere in the state, said spokesman Matt Weaver of the state Division of Forestry.
"We're probably going to have a very busy season," said Assistant State Fire Marshal Rusty Belanger. "I don't think we've even hit the tip of the iceberg yet."
He said the fire season is off to an early start again this year, due in part to light snowfall during the winter and dry, hot conditions around the state this month.
Tankers containing retardant were diverted from the Caribou Hills Fire — which had more than quadrupled in size throughout the day to nearly 10,000 acres — burning about 30 miles north of Homer to the Susitna Valley because of the number of fires burning there, said Kris Eriksen, a Division of Forestry spokeswoman.
Lightning storms in the Susitna Valley sparked 14 fires last night and started 14 more Thursday, Weaver said, though most were less than a tenth of an acre in size.
"We had a lot of new fires spring up yesterday and we were scurrying around like crazy," he said.
Only two, he said, were still of major concern: the Yetna Fire and the Su River Fire.
The Su River Fire, burning about a quarter mile south of Trapper Lake, had burned 4,500 acres by late afternoon and was threatening 20 cabins, Weaver said.
The fire, which has already claimed at least one cabin, was heading north toward Trapper Creek Lake, he said.
"The area is remote and off the road system, adding to the difficulty in responding to the lighting-sparked blaze," Regional Fire Manager John See said in a media release.
Alaska State Troopers helped evacuate three people Wednesday night from the area five miles west of the Parks Highway and three others flew out of the area in private aircraft.
"We ended up with a lot of panicked people when there was no fire," Weaver said. "There are no evacuation orders anywhere east of the Susitna River."
Three smaller fires were burning near the Parks highway near mile 141, Weaver said.
The forecast for the area was calling for more thunderstorms Thursday night.
On the Kenai, the Caribou Hills Fire had destroyed one cabin and a second may have been lost late Wednesday, Eriksen said. Fire crews are trying to get to the area to assess the property, she said. The lost structure was north of Deep Creek and belonged to Rob Coreson and Rob Link.
The fire has spread several miles into the south side of Deep Creek drainage, Eriksen said, something firefighters had been struggling to prevent.
"When fire gets into drainages, they sort of chimney down because there's a lot of fuel in them," she said.
Firefighters are still hoping the fire won't cross to the north side, which is where a number of structures are located.
The southeastern flank of the fire also pushed up to within three miles of the Caribou Lakes Subdivision. Fire officials reported the area between the fire and Caribou Lakes was wet and boggy, a factor that could slow the fire down.
The blaze — spewing out a 40,000-foot column of smoke — has also spread into an area on its northeast flank where it is threatening an unknown number of cabins, Eriksen said.
She said the area is riddled with highly flammable beetle-killed trees and black spruce.
"It's like kerosene on a stick," she said.
Two people were rescued by helicopter Tuesday evening, when the fire began.
A Homer Electric Association power transmission line was in the fire's path and is assumed to have been destroyed despite efforts to save it, Eriksen said. Power was diverted and the line between Bradley and Soldotna was cut off before the fire reached it. Utility officials said customer service was not disrupted.
The fire began when sparks from a grinder being used to sharpen a shovel fell into dry grass, Eriksen said.
More than 120 firefighters are battling the fire in the popular Caribou Hills recreational area with no end in sight, Eriksen said.
"It's amazing the amount of energy this thing is putting off," she said. "It has a lot of fuel."
Smoke and ash were reported in Homer, but Eriksen said the town is in no immediate danger.
The National Weather Service predicted partly cloudy skies and isolated thunderstorms for Thursday, with highs in the mid 70s.
Crews are continuing to use a helicopter to drop water from a lake on the fire. Bulldozers also are helping build fire breaks.
State fire bosses called up crews from as far away as Anchorage and Fairbanks to fight the fire.