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Cooler weather slows spread of Alaska wildfires

Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Cooler temperatures and higher humidity were slowing the spread of Alaska's wildfires Wednesday.

Fire officials said the respite at most of the blazes offered crews a chance to get a better handle on the earliest fire season in at least a decade.

''It gives us a little breathing room,'' said Andy Williams with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

Williams said 12 of the 50 fires burning in Alaska Wednesday were being fought, while the rest were being monitored. Thirteen new fires were reported Tuesday.

So far this year, 252 fires have been reported statewide. They have burned an estimated 275,000 acres, fire officials said.

An outside aircraft equipped with an infrared camera to map fires through smoke arrived Wednesday morning and was scheduled to make it first Alaska flyover Wednesday night.

The plane should help make more accurate maps of the fires. Meanwhile, fire managers said front-line observations confirmed improved conditions for crews Wednesday.

''Things have calmed down around here,'' Pete Buist of the Alaska Division of Forestry said of the fire near Chena Hot Springs, which had grown to 19,200 acres.

''We have a cloud cover today. It's still warm, but we don't have the direct solar heat,'' Buist said. ''The fire is certainly moving, but not as rapidly and wildly as it was.''

Driven by 20- to 30-mph winds, the blaze had threatened the Angel Creek Lodge and surrounding cabins, stopping at 500 feet of the lodge after burning four cabins early on. Wind had died down to a breeze and the fire was no longer actively burning in that area but Buist said fire managers still consider it a danger to structures.

With heavy smoke reducing visibility, officials extended the closure of the Chena Hot Springs Road to Mile 39.5. The Chena Hot Springs Resort also remained closed.

A fire near Livengood continued to rage and had grown to 85,000 acres. Williams said 20-mph winds, extremely dry black spruce and low humidity were creating severe burning conditions Wednesday morning but the winds were diminishing by late afternoon.

Smokejumpers attacked the east flank of the fire when it flared up Tuesday afternoon. They secured the line and contained the blaze from the Elliott Highway to the Tolovana River. Firefighters continued to work the south end to protect cabins and Native lands in the Minto Flats Wednesday. Some Native lands burned over the weekend, Williams said.

An additional 20-person hot shot crew joined the 150 firefighters and smokejumpers already at the scene Wednesday. An incident management team is scheduled to take command of the firefighting effort there, Williams said.

South of Galena, a lightning-sparked fire had grown to 52,000 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.

Fire managers were compiling a new map for a 49,600-acre fire 15 miles southeast of McGrath, said Kevin Koechlein of the Forestry Division. He said 136 firefighters and a 20-person hot shot crew were assigned to the blaze, with another hot shot crew arriving Wednesday afternoon.

Koechlein said temperatures had dropped from a high this week of 65 degrees, offering a morale boost for crews, who made ''good progress'' on the north flank and worked on a backup fire line farther north near an old burn and the Kuskokwim River.

''People are more productive, certainly happier seeing progress,'' Koechlein said. ''They're more determined to do a good job.''

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