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Escaped campfire started weekend Tustumena blaze; crews still treating burn area

Tustumena Lake Fire smoke column.
Alaska Division of Forestry
Tustumena Lake Fire smoke column.

A wildfire that burned more than 50 acres west of Tustumena Lake this weekend was caused by an escaped campfire at Centennial Lake Campground, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. Campers near the Slackwater boat launch were evacuated Saturday as firefighters responded to the area, about 15 miles south of Soldotna.

Brandon Hampton is the public information officer for the division’s coastal region. He said Monday the fire started at the campground and was spread by winds, as evidenced by the elliptical shape of the fire from the air.

“That’s indicative of, you know, someone building a warming fire or cooking fire and then just leaving and making sure it’s not completely cold to the touch,” he said. “Any winds we have, especially down there where it’s been hot and dry the past couple of weeks, the winds can blow embers into the vegetation and then start a fire and that’s exactly what happened.”

On Monday, he said responders had knocked down the fire’s flames, but were still treating hot ash in the burn area. The fire was initially reported at 20 acres, grew to 55 acres and was then suppressed to 35 acres.

Among the agencies that responded were the Division of Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Fire Service. Hampton said the large response was due in part to the fire’s location. Smoke jumpers also responded. They’re highly trained firefighters who parachute into a fire site.

“Once we arrived on scene, we quickly realized the fire was in a very inaccessible area. We typically can take our brush trucks or fire engines to fires in the area, because most of them are road-based, so you can access them very easily,” he said. “But we quickly realized we could not do that with this fire. Which poses some challenges for us at that point.”

On Monday afternoon, Hampton said there were 22 fire personnel still assigned to the Tustumena area to continue cooling down the debris. He said pockets of unburned debris may ignite over the next few days, but that’s common and people shouldn’t be concerned.

“Even though the public can't see smoke, it doesn't mean a fire is out, it just means the active flame has, in essence, been knocked down,” he said. “But now the work really begins. Now we have to have our firefighters in there, in essence grubbing through the hot ash utilizing water to cool it down. The last thing we want to do is leave a fire and have it restart.”

The Slackwater boat launch and Tustumena campground reopen Tuesday (7/2) at 8 a.m. The Centennial Lake Campground will remain closed. Motorists are asked to avoid the area when possible and to yield to emergency vehicles. "

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s non-emergency fire information line is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and can be accessed at 907-262-4636. Additional information about the fire can be found at akfireinfo.com.

Prior to joining KDLL's news team in May 2024, O'Hara spent nearly four years reporting for the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai. Before that, she was a freelance reporter for The New York Times, a statehouse reporter for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach her at aohara@kdll.org