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Lodge near Chena Hot Springs survives wind-fueled fire

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Angel Creek Lodge was still standing Monday, despite clobbering winds Sunday night that pushed an uncontained wildfire within 500 yards of the structure on Chena Hot Springs Road.

''It was grim,'' Pete Buist with the Alaska Division of Forestry said of the 20- to 30-mph winds. ''There were sustained winds all night long. We barely held the fire, but we held it.''

The strong winds finally subsided Monday morning but gradually kicked back up again, sending flames spot-jumping across Angel Creek. By late afternoon, winds were estimated at 20 mph as more than 230 firefighters battled the inferno, which had burned more than 10,000 acres by Monday evening.

Late in the day, the Chena Hot Springs Road was closed at Mile 46.5 because of the intensity of the smoke, Buist said.

Fire officials thought three cabins had been destroyed, but Buist said a fourth torched cabin was discovered Sunday. All burned early in the fire, which started Thursday night.

Buist said fire officials were investigating reports that a burn pile triggered the fire, but he emphasized that the cause remained unknown.

A cold front ushered in the strong winds, which whipped up the fire and carried smoke and ash to North Pole, Two Rivers and Salcha. Buist said he was getting a barrage of calls from concerned residents from those and other communities.

''Some of those calls were more than 50 miles away,'' he said. ''But when people see smoke and ash, they get nervous.''

Meanwhile, firefighters continued to battle other fires around Alaska, including a quickly moving blaze that started Thursday near Livengood.

That fire thwarted the efforts of 150 firefighters, including 16 smokejumpers, growing to more than 35,000 acres by Monday morning, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, a federal and state office that tracks all fires and coordinates firefighting resources.

The fire was moving south and west, posing a potential threat to nearby Native lands, said interagency spokesman Andy Williams.

By Monday evening, crews were working hard against 30-mph wind gusts to hold the spreading blaze on the south side of the Elliot Highway. Williams said authorities were considering closing the highway.

Seven new fires were reported around the state Monday, including Fairbanks, Delta Junction and Venetie, according to Williams. He said all of those fires were small.

Altogether, about 40 fires were burning in Alaska Monday, Williams said. That brings the number of wildfires reported so far this year to 231 and 125,000 acres burned.

Crews also were trying to stem a wildfire 15 miles southeast of McGrath that had spread to about 26,000 acres. The fire, however, is not considered a significant danger because McGrath is protected by the Kuskokwim River, said Matt Weaver of the Forestry Division.

Five lightning fires were reported Sunday in the McGrath region. Williams said those fires were small and were being monitored but not fought.

South of Galena, another lightning-sparked fire had grown by almost 3,000 acres since Sunday to 9,500 acres.

A fire that began on Fort Greely's bombing range May 15 was still being monitored, but not actively fought. That fire had burned more than 46,000 acres by Monday.

Officials were awaiting the arrival of four more hot shot crews ordered through the national coordination center in Boise, Idaho, to augment the six crews already in Alaska and the 26 emergency firefighter crews from Alaska. Also, 35 smokejumpers have been brought in to add to some 65 in the state.

An outside aircraft equipped with an infrared camera to map fires through smoke was expected to arrive Tuesday.

''We're kind of widespread and feeling put upon,'' Buist said. ''At a time like this, we'd appreciate it if people would refrain from setting open fires and burning debris.

''We don't need any new fires.''

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