Active hot spots on Leisnoi property spotted in Chiniak during an overflight Friday morning. Photo by Kodiak Fire Chief Mullican
The wind-whipped wildfire that threatened Chiniak on Kodiak Island may not turn out to be the community-wide disaster it appeared it might become when officials ordered the evacuation of all residents Thursday night.
Many Kodiak residents were up all night watching flames leap from the Chiniak area, worried about friends and relatives, but this morning when Kodiak Fire Chief Jim Mullican made an overflight of the community this morning and was surprised at what he saw.
“Very surprising compared to some of the pictures that were out on the internet and such of that huge wall of flame we could see from Deadman's,” he said. “There obviously are some burned areas out there but it's not the devastation you would think. It surprised me.”
One home and the Chiniak Library were burned to the ground, and other homes and structures were visibly damaged
“The loss of property, personal property doesn't appear to be substantial,” Mullican said. “There are people who lost their home, absolutely, and my heart goes out to them. But overall, we really lucked out, because this was setting up to be a very bad thing.”
The Chiniak K-8 School, on the same street as the library, was not damaged.
As of 2 p.m. the blaze had settled down enough that Chiniak residents were being allowed back into their homes, though the road is still closed to non-residents at the Roslyn Beach Bridge.
Mullican said he saw numerous hot spots in the area when he overflew the area, but only two of them were actively burning.
“One of them was out at Seaquell Point, and it was actually burning out toward the ocean itself, and it was really close to the point, so basically the wind was pushing it off into the ocean area. And another area a little bit further back up in the hills, it was burning really good, but it wasn't moving anywhere. There doesn't seem to be any drive.”
Kodiak Emergency Operations spokeswoman Nova Javier said three Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft and 15 smoke jumpers are in Kodiak to lead the effort in stamping out the fire, and 50 more firefighters are available if the blaze flares back up.
The Forestry planes were delayed by dry west winds gusting to 65 mph, which whipped up volcanic ash from the Valley of 10,000 Smokes on the Alaska Peninsula. The ash-laden wind grounded several commercial air flights to Kodiak Thursday night and this morning.
National Weather Service forecaster Cameron Betts in Kodiak said maximum sustained winds last night reached 50 mph, with the highest gust to 65 mph. The winds drove the flames several hundreds of feet into the air, and were clearly visible in Kodiak City, 10-miles across Chiniak Bay.
Betts says he expects a brief lull in the wind and a bit of rain starting Saturday morning, but a return to windy, drier, conditions next week.
“Roughly right around, I would say, 4- 5- o'clock in the morning it should start raining. But by afternoon it should break up into more showers than steady rainfall,” Betts said. “So we're going to get a decent amount. It will be measurable, but I don't think it'll be enough to where it'll help out with that fire any.”
There is no immediate cause identified as the start of the fire, estimated to have covered over 2,000 acres, but it may have been a powerline or transformer damaged by the winds. Kodiak Electric Association CEO Darron Scott said that reports of outages in the Chiniak area began coming in just before the fire around 9 p.m.
Kodiak City Manager Aimee Kniaziowski, who serves as the joint city-borough emergency management coordinator, said no injuries were reported and everyone from Chiniak appears accounted for.
The evacuation watch for residents of nearby Pasagshak was lifted Friday afternoon.
(this story was updated to reflect that only one home was lost.)