Wildfires growing despite efforts by hundreds of firefighters

Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Fueled by black spruce and fanned by hot windy weather, wildfires continued to devour thousands of acres across Alaska Tuesday.

Fire officials said 48 fires, including seven new ones reported Tuesday, were burning in the state. Firefighters actively fought seven fires and responded to all the new fires. The rest were only monitored.

Five of the largest fires alone had burned a total of at least 246,000 acres.

A fire near Chena Hot Springs had spread to 14,430 acres. Though smaller than others, the blaze posed the most potential for property damage, especially with lingering arid conditions in the Interior, officials said.

''We still have sever fire weather -- low relative humidity and high winds -- and a warming trend on top of that,'' said Pete Buist with the Alaska Division of Forestry. ''It makes fire behave in extreme, erratic ways.''

More than 320 firefighters were battling that fire. They continued to keep it from reaching the Angel Creek Lodge 500 yards away. No additional burned structures have been found beside the four cabins that burned soon after the fire started Thursday night, Buist said.

The Chena Hot Springs Road remained closed at Mile 46.5, which essentially closed down the Chena Hot Springs Resort, Buist said. Fire crews were using the resort property as a campsite and fire officials have rented space inside to use for an office, Buist said.

A highly active fire near Livengood had burned 83,000 acres, including some Native lands, since it started Thursday near the Elliot Highway, said Andy Williams with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

Williams said 160 firefighters, including 24 smokejumpers, were working that fire and continued to hold it on the south side of the highway. Eight of the smokejumpers parachuted into the north end of the blaze to help secure the perimeter, while the Tolovana River acted as a barrier on the east and south sides, Williams said.

''This fire has come a long ways and it's putting up quite a bit of smoke,'' he said.

Crews set up a base camp outside a fire 15 miles southeast of McGrath that had spread to more than 49,600 acres, said Kevin Koechlein of the Division of Forestry. The blaze -- shooting up a smoke plume as high as 10,000 feet -- was 40 percent active but not contained.

''Not by a long shot,'' Koechlein said. ''We still have a long way to go.''

South of Galena, a lightning-sparked fire had grown to 34,000 acres, burning tundra as well as black spruce.

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 65,000 acres.

There are eight 20-person hot shot crews in Alaska, including six from Outside. Two other Alaska crews are returning this week after fighting wildfires in New Mexico. However, two additional crews previously ordered through the national coordination center in Idaho are not available because they are busy fighting Outside fires, Williams said.

''But that could change day by day,'' Williams said. ''We just don't know right now when they are available.''

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

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