A wildland fire broke out on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge just north of Sterling on Thursday evening. As of 10 p.m., the East Fork Fire was estimated to be roughly 150 acres in size.
Two wild landfires broke out on the Kenai Peninsula on Thursday. A small fire off East End Road in Homer is under control. But crews are still at work trying to keep the East Fork Fire in Sterling away from homes and the Sterling Highway.
Lori Zaumseil was out in the garden on a warm, sunny Thursday evening when the weather near her home, east of Sterling, suddenly changed.
“Thunder started to rumble, it got really dark. Before we knew it, it was actually hailing. (It) started to rain, harder than I’ve ever seen it rain in 14 years in Alaska.”
Not long after that, a wildland fire was called in. Central Emergency Services crews were first on the scene. The fire quickly grew to about 150 acres, about 3 miles north and east from the Sterling Highway near Mile 76. State Division of Forestry Area Forester Hans Rinke says smokejumpers were dropped in Thursday night to try and keep the fire moving into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and away from homes and the highway.
“Our tactics are to kind of slow the fire spread to the south and west there. Right now, the fire's moving to the north and east with a southwesterly breeze on it. So our tactics will be to kind of shepherd the fire out into the refuge there."
The fire is burning in a limited protection area, meaning as it threatens homes and other property, resources will be deployed, but where it can safely burn through the refuge, it will be allowed to do so. Despite reports of lightning in the area right around the time the fire was called in, Rinke is hesitant to name a cause.
"That is possible. You know, we did take some lightning strikes across the Kenai Peninsula and in that Swanson River area in general with the cumulus buildup we had here today, so there were thunderstorms in the area."
Lori Zaumseil says those thunderstorms were small, but fierce.
"We took a ride shortly afterwards down the road and there were some neighbors out looking for a little lost dog and they were only maybe half or three quarters of a mile down the road and we asked them about this terrible rain and she said, 'What?' And we said, 'The hail, the thunder and the lightning?' And she was completely confused. Literally three quarters of a mile away and they had no idea what had happened just down the road. It was so centralized, I guess. From where we were it almost seemed like Armageddon going on."
Hans Rinke says there should be a little insurance in terms of protection for homes. After the Card Street Fire in 2015, the area got some attention and a large fire break was cut in along the refuge boundary north of the Sterling Highway just this past winter.