- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A fire in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge grew to 69 square miles Wednesday and poured smoke into Soldotna and Kasilof but caused no known damage to structures, fire officials said.

The Funny River Fire has grown from an estimated 20,000 acres Tuesday to more than 44,000 acres Wednesday. Some of that change had to do with the difficulty of mapping the smoky blaze, fire spokeswoman Michelle Weston said.

The human-caused fire began Monday south of Funny River Road. Winds spread flames 10 miles south to Tustumena Lake, the 25-by-6-mile body of water that drains runoff from the Tustumena Glacier. The lake effectively blocked most of the fire’s spread south.

“Most of the movement on the south end is to the southwest toward the mountains where it’s not really hurting anything,” said fire spokesman Pete Buist.

Firefighters saved Nurses Cabin on the lake, a historic structure built in the 1940s by two nurses employed by a cannery at the mouth of the Kasilof River, Weston said.

Firefighters turned most of their attention to the northwest corner of the fire, where flames threatened to jump Funny River Road and endanger the communities of Sterling and Kasilof. Air tankers scooping water from the lake had kept the fire at bay as of Wednesday afternoon, Buist said.

“That’s worked out real well,” he said.

The effort to contain the fire was assisted by pre-emptive work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency had cleared highly flammable dead spruce trees killed by bark beetles along Funny River Road, firefighters said.

Alaska’s hot, sunny spring has left vegetation on the peninsula south of Anchorage extremely dry. A burning ban remains in effect, said Sam Harrel, a state Division of Forestry spokesman.

The 48 people fighting the fire were due to get help Thursday. A jet carrying hotshot crews was due in and 100 more firefighters could be on scene Thursday, Weston said.

“We will be at 150,” she said.

Across Cook Inlet from the peninsula, firefighters determined the 1,500-acre Tyonek fire had consumed a cabin and two outbuildings, Buist said. It had not reached the Beluga power station, which burns natural gas and provides power to Anchorage.

“It’s an issue, but it’s not imminent,” he said.

The fire had prompted a brief evacuation of the village of Tyonek. Winds dropped, residents returned to Tyonek and the fire became more active in the north toward Beluga, where just 20 people live.

Three 20-person ground crews concentrated efforts on the north end, assisted by air tankers dropping retardant and three helicopters dropping buckets of water, Buist said. The Nikiski Fire Department worked on creating “defensible space” around cabins and a compressor station, Buist said.

Far to the north in interior Alaska, 16 smokejumpers worked to protect buildings from a fire east of the Dalton Highway at the Yukon River Bridge. Structures west of the highway, including a restaurant and cabins, could be in the fire’s path if it crosses the highway.

The fire Wednesday afternoon was a mile or two from the highway and the tran-Alaska pipeline.

Wildfires have crossed the metal pipeline in the past, without causing major damage, Buist said.

The Bureau of Land Management said its Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station and the 60 Mile Campground are closed due to that fire.

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