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Some 1,200 evacuated as wind-fanned wildfire near Fairbanks explodes

Sean Doogan
Lightning ignited the Bitter Creek Fire near the village of Tok on May 31 and doubled in size over a single day. Shifting winds pushed the fire in many directions, twice toward the Alaska Highway, which caused traffic delays. Signs of spring rapidly emerged in late in the month, allowing a limited window for green up, a period when vegetation grows and dead grasses are replaced. The fire burned thousands of acres but destroyed no structures, and shortly thereafter, crews were dispatched to the growing number of fires statewide.
Clinton Northway photo
Hotshot crews, like the two firefighters pictured, are currently battling blazes stretching tens of thousands of acres. Pioneer Peak hotshots worked to extinguish burning snags on the Point MacKenzie Fire in late May, the same time crews managed the Bitter Creek Fire farther north. Firefighters held the extent of the blaze at 45 acres, but one cabin and a shed were destroyed.
Lafe Martyn/ Alaska Division of Forestry
Alaska's Pioneer Peak Hotshots smokejumpers helped contain the fire.
Alaska Division of Forestry photo
The Gannett Glacier fire crew worked to completely extinguish the Point MacKenzie Fire, which took about a week.
Courtesy: Alaska Division of Forestry
The Lime Hills fire has been burning since May 31 and has scorched about 200,000 acres. Numerous crews kept the fire away from Lime Village, as full protection was required due to the site’s cultural and historical significance. The village was one of the first Calista Corporation villages to get all of its land entitlements. Pockets of the large fire could last through recent rains in Southwest and spread as the summer goes on. Equipment is being backhauled from the area, however.
Francis Mitchell/Alaska Division of Forestry
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Fire number 248: The Old Valdez Trail Fire, which started on June 16 near Harding Lake in the Interior. The Division of Forestry worked with the Salcha Volunteer Fire Department to protect homes and keep the fire from spreading north to the Richardson highway. The human caused fire was checked July 2 and declared out.
Tim Whitesell/Alaska Division of Forestry
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
A plane dumps fire retardant on the Moody Creek fire. The human-caused fire ignited on June 18; it’s simply being monitored on a day-to-day basis, only having burned 40 acres. A small wildfire, no doubt, but indicative of the amount of resources funneled toward extinguishing the state’s fires.
Tasha Shields/Alaska Division of Forestry
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Smoke visible from the Alaska Highway of the Moon Lake Fire, located 10 miles west of Tanacross, population 136. Lightning sparked the fire on June 25, which, as of July 2, was zero percent contained. Fire managers are preparing to access the fire by boat while helicopters continue to do bucket work on the southeast corner of the blaze near the Tanana River. This summer, smoke from multiple fires have been visible in Alaska communities and from roadways.
Clinton Northway/Alaska Division of Forestry
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
The Excelsior fire started May 27 has burned 1,465 acres. Started by lightning, the fire has grown 465 acres since June 30.The fire is being monitored and no staff are currently fighting the fire.
Mike Trimmer/Alaska Division of Forestry
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
The Hoholitna Fire, burning 19 miles south of Sleetmute, was the center of wildfire management in Southwest over the June 28 weekend. Crews cleared growth around buildings, set up pumps and hoses and burned out wide patches of timber between homes. The fire has burned 2,900 acres, and fire managers have begun to pull resources out of the area, as significant rain in the region has halted the growth of many blazes.
Alaska Division of Forestry
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
A wildfire begun by Army live-fire artillery training had by July 7 grown to more than 40,000 acres in size, displacing some 1,200 Interior Alaskans living north of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road and in nearby communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Wildfire season continues across Alaska. A total of 109 fires currently are burning.
Courtesy Tracey Porreca
Fire season started late this year thanks to a frigid, record-breaking April -- cold temperature records were broken statewide, and snow blanketed Alaska through April and into May. Anchorage’s cyclists were hammered with snow on Bike to Work Day, May 17. Normally, late May sees warmer air from the Gulf of Alaska pulled north across the state, but this year, much of Alaska remained in a winter weather pattern.
Loren Holmes photo
An exception to the season, this early spring fire near Summit Lake on Kodiak Island started on May 14. The climate of the island in comparatively mild, much warmer than island areas of similar latitude. The Alaska Division of Forestry contained the blaze to a mere 30 acres.
Alaska Division of Forestry

Some 1,200 people fled their homes and businesses northeast of Fairbanks along Chena Hot Springs Road Sunday afternoon as flames from the Stuart Creek 2 fire, first ignited by military artillery, spread rapidly.

The fire prompted the state to shut down the entire Chena River Recreation Area Sunday evening.

Earlier in the day, fire officials ordered an evacuation for everyone living from Mile 18 to Mile 34 of the road -- but the closure of the Chena River Recreation Area effectively extends the evacuation zone all the way to Mile 59.5, near the famed Chena Hot Springs Resort.

The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at Weller Elementary School, at Mile 2.5, and Fairbanks North Star Borough officials began registering people who’d evacuated --  as well as those who refused to leave the zone.

Weather not helping

Temperatures in the low 70s combined with strong winds out of the southeast fanned the flames, pushing the fire to more than 40,000 acres – an overnight jump of some 8,000 acres -- to the southern banks of the Chena River by late Sunday. Fire officials said the gusts could eventually push the blaze over the river and towards Chena Hot Springs Road between miles 18 to 20.  No homes or structures have been lost yet; nor have there been any injuries.

About 600 firefighters have been deployed. The Alaska Fire Service said several aircraft are also tackling the flames from above, but thick smoke prevented the aerial firefighters from seeing how much the blaze grew Sunday afternoon.

Residents reported choking smoke and ash falling in the areas of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley, both neighborhoods inside the evacuation zone.

“It got pretty chaotic for a few hours as people tried to evacuate,” said Becky Alexander, who owns the Pleasant Valley Store inside the evacuation area.  Despite the order to leave, Alexander said she isn’t closing up shop yet.

“I have to stay here to keep the gas pumps open for everyone trying to get out of here.  Even the fire trucks need my diesel,” said Alexander, who added she would leave when she “saw the firefighters themselves scrambling to get out.”

Dangers on military property 

The fire started June 19, ignited by Fort Wainwright artillery training on nearby military land. The blaze’s location is complicating firefighting efforts because the danger of possible unexploded ordinances has prevented ground crews from entering the main fire area. 

The Stuart Creek 2 wildfire has been smoldering on a training range land south of Chena Hot Springs Road. It flared up July 2, pushed by increasing winds in the area, a sparsely populated series of rural subdivisions on the way to Chena Hot Springs Resort.

When the training took place, the entire Interior was under a Red Flag Warning – meaning no open flames, fireworks, burning, or campfires were permitted because of extreme fire danger. 

Both BLM and the Fort Wainwright Fire Department recommended the Army cancel its artillery training that day, but the Army decided to go ahead.

“We serve in an advisory capacity, along with the Fort Wainwright Fire Department, to the military. But ultimately all decisions about training on military land are the military’s,” said Kent Slaughter, BLM’s Alaska Fire Service Manager.

Commander talks to community

Fort Wainwright Commander Col. Ron Johnson addressed more than 300 people who gathered at the Pleasant Valley Community Center on Saturday night, but according to people at the meeting, he did not explain why the Army went ahead with live fire training during the fire-danger warning.

Repeated requests for information from the Army went unanswered Sunday.

More than 600 people are fighting the fire, including two units from Pennsylvania – the first time that state has sent entire crews to Alaska.  

“This fire shows extreme behavior, aided by strong winds and dry conditions and could grow to more than 60,000 acres in size,” said Bernie Pineda, BLM Public Information Center Manager.

In total, the Fire Service estimates there are about 430 homes, and another 400 buildings within the fire evacuation zone.  Firefighters say they are trying to protect the buildings with ground crews, while using sprinklers where available to keep structures safe.

The weather is forecast to be in the low 70’s to mid-60s with showers in the coming days, but for now the fire remains extremely active and growing.

“People were upset with the Army at last night’s meeting,” said store owner Alexander. “But now isn’t the time for that. Right now, we are just concentrating on the fire itself.  It may have been started by human error, but Mother Nature is in charge now.”

This is a developing story. Please return for updates. Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com