FAIRBANKS -- The Stuart Creek 2 wildfire, sparked by Army training in June, almost doubled in size Sunday and now has burned more than 123 square miles between Eielson Air Force Base and Chena Hot Springs Road, northeast of Fairbanks.
More than 680 people are now working the blaze, but its location -- inside an artillery training area -- has kept ground crews away from the major fire area because of the fear of unexploded ordinance. The Alaska Fire Service said 17 air-drop tanker planes working the fire Monday.
An evacuation order remains in effect.
The fire service says more than 600 people fled the fire area yesterday, between Mile 18 and Mile 34 of the road. The Chena River State Recreation Area has also been closed, effectively extending the evacuation zone to Mile 59.5 of Chena Hot Springs Road. In total, the fire has burned 79,000 acres, growing massively in the last 24 hours, but the weather has turned for the better.
Cooler temperatures and rain are expected over the next few days.
“The weather should really help us, as the winds from yesterday have died down,” said Bernie Pineda, spokesman for the fire service.
Dogs and people clear out
Back in Fairbanks, people who fled the flames are trying to cope as best they can.
Iditarod Sled Dog Race runner-up Aliy Zirkle left Two Rivers with her 59 dogs yesterday afternoon when the evacuation call went out.
“We actually had a very good view of the fire,” she said. “We could see flames, so we thought it was probably time to go.”
She and her husband, Yukon Quest champion Allen Moore, loaded all the dogs into two trucks and a trailer, along with “a ton of dog food,” medicine, 60 dog bowls, and other supplies. Among them were two 15-year-olds and a pregnant dog due at the end of July.
In terms of belongings, “we forgot some of the human stuff,” but the dogs are covered, Zirkle said.
They are staying with her stepdaughter in Ester, a community 5 miles west of Fairbanks. She and her family are “totally fine,” she said. Among the family members staying in Ester are Zirkle’s parents, who come to Alaska during the summer to escape Florida’s hurricane season. This year their travels north didn’t offer the weather respite that they were looking for.
Despite the chaos, Zirkle’s dogs are happy and camping out under spruce trees. “They think we’re at summer camp,” she said.
Zirkle doesn’t harbor any negative feelings toward the U.S. Army, whose artillery training started the fire despite suggestions by the federal Bureau of Land Management to cancel practice due to the hot, dry weather.
“Bad things happen to good people all the time,” Zirkle said.
Zirkle also received an overwhelming response from dog mushers across Alaska who offered to care for sled dogs during the evacuation.
Fairgrounds as emergency animal shelter
Some Two Rivers mushers and pet owners have brought their animals to the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds, which is being used as an emergency animal shelter during the evacuations. The fairgrounds have a barn, large open lots and horse stalls that make it a perfect place to house animals.
As of Monday morning, 221 animals had been checked in to the fairgrounds shelter, said Animal Control Manager Sandy Besser. Among them are 134 dogs, 46 cats, some pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and a horse.
Four or five dog teams have also been dropped off at the fairgrounds.
Kim Douglas stayed in an RV at the fairgrounds alongside her team Sunday night. On Monday morning, teary-eyed and running on an hour of sleep, she said she was overwhelmed by being uprooted and in limbo as the fire rages on. “It’s pretty emotional,” she said. “I can’t really think beyond today.”
Douglas has lived in Fairbanks on and off for 30 years and has never faced an evacuation before. With all the fire warnings, she and her husband Harry had staged a mock evacuation the week before, during which Douglas thought to herself that she was “not quite ready yet” if an evacuation call came.
But the call came. On Sunday, she was making rhubarb strawberry jam when the evacuation notice went out. “Yesterday was my day to take care of myself,” she said. “Right around noon it all fell apart.”
Black ash from the fire was falling from a darkened sky as she scrambled to evacuate.
“Even though we had stuff ready to go, it took about three hours” to evacuate. Douglas has 35 dogs, and is also caring for her neighbor’s 19 dogs. With the help of friends, she led a caravan of six trucks and two horse trailers out of Two Rivers at about 4:30 p.m.
Left behind were her chickens and a cat that Douglas couldn’t locate before leaving. “I’m sure she’s fine,” Douglas said. “She’s a hunter.”
She didn’t have time to gather some smaller necessities, like a towel and her cell-phone charger.
In terms of going home, “I can’t even think about that,” until she knows it’s safe to return.
Douglas attended the community meeting Saturday in which the army commander explained that artillery training started the fire.
“There were a lot of grumpy people,” she said. “Some rightly so, and some because it’s Fairbanks.”
Douglas doesn’t hold any anger toward the Army, however.
Alaska Dispatch reporter Sean Doogan contributed to this report. Contact Laurel Andrews and laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com