The Funny River fire continues to burn the central Kenai Peninsula this week. Light rains have helped firefighters maintain their containment lines.
The fire is estimated at around 193,000 acres with 46 percent containment.
All evacuation advisories were lifted this week and the Skilak Lake campground and boat launch reopened today.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Funny River residents met Wednesday night at the local community center for the first time since the evacuation orders were lifted. Fire management officials were there to update them on continuing operations and to help the community move forward.
There’s standing room only at the Funny River community center. Residents stand shoulder to shoulder in this small building that just a few days ago was in the heart of the evacuation zone.
There are many familiar faces inside. When I first met resident Sarah McAlpin, she was at the Red Cross shelter in Soldotna. She had no idea then when she’d be able to go home or even if she’d have a home to go to. Now, she and her neighbors are back.
“I’ll tell you when I got home, the relief was incredible,” McAlpin said.
She says the past week and a half has been very stressful. But things are looking up now.
“The most peaceful sleep…we had a motorhome. Yes, we’re used to that. But, being in your home—nothing was damaged, no visual effect that had happened. It was incredible,” McAlpin said.
While no houses were damaged by the fire, there are visible burn areas along the south side of Funny River Road.
There are other signs of the fire too, like streamers of colorful tape tied to trees, signposts and gates. And, a few unusual spots marked as crime scenes. Lieutenant Dane Gilmore with Alaska State Troopers says that tape played an important role.
“The Fire Incident Commander issued the evacuation order. The Borough spread the word with it using RapidNotify and using our dispatch center. And we sent various law enforcement agency folks—AST, Wildlife Troopers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, State Parks and CERT volunteers to the area,” Gilmore said. “And we had established to use pink and blue flag tape to indicate that we had gone to a residence to attempt to notify people of the evacuation.”
He says they used pink and blue because it’s a distinctive combination. But, the evacuation was so large they ran into a problem.
“There were about a thousand locations. So, eventually we ran out of pink and blue. We switched to blue and orange because we had some orange left,” Gilmore said. “And eventually we ran out of that. Because we have crime scene tape in our vehicles, we used crime scene tape.”
Now that the evacuation is over, Gilmore says it doesn’t need to be up anymore.
“And if you have it, I would suggest that you remove it. It is evidence of your participation in this fire and that your house was impacted. But it’s also what we will use in the future in order to note that we gone to attempt notification,” Gilmore said. “So, it’s good if we can get that removed so if there’s a future event, we can use this as an effective way to indicate people that have been notified.”
Incident Commander Rob Allen says he doesn’t see another evacuation happening anytime soon. But, fire can be unpredictable and he says there are ways for residents to protect their property for the future.
“As we’re getting it more contained and people are getting back into their homes, they still need to continue to clean up around their homes,” Allen said. “Firewise is always good. The fire’s still here. We’re not a hundred percent contained yet, even in the areas that we’re really working on that have values at risk. So, getting their places cleaned up and making sure they’re good to go.”
Allen says the forest has also been significantly changed by this fire. Places that were once popular recreational spots may not be safe for quite some time.
“If they start traveling in the fire area itself or next to the fire area to see how things were, just be careful,” Allen said. “The trees will be weakened. If we get a good windstorm, stuff will fall over. It’s going to be hazardous for quite a while.”
The area is not the same as it had been before the fire. The community will have to adjust to the differences, which may take some time.
But for residents like Sarah McAlpin, just being back at home again is good enough. She says that wouldn’t have been possible without all of the people who came together to make it happen.
“The appreciation and the words can’t express how we really feel. The job that everybody did was incredible,” McAlpin said. “I would like to give a huge thanks to the community of Soldotna. They opened their doors. They fed us, they sympathized, empathized. The outpouring of support was incredible. I hope that someday I get to pay it forward.”
There is another community meeting in Funny River tentatively planned for later this week.