Alaska skies hazy from wildfires

HOT: Railbelt blaze up to 156,343 acres.

July 13, 2009 

Smoke from the Minto Flats South fire billows last month as several riverboats travel up the Tanana River near its confluence with the Tolovana River. The fire is currently 155,983acres.

SAM BISHOP / FAIRBANKS DAILY NEWS-MINER VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Several wildfires continued burning Monday in Alaska with weather conditions unlikely to provide any easing.

The biggest blaze, the Railbelt Complex fire 12 miles southwest of Nenana, was actually three fires that were at 156,343 acres. The biggest of those, the Minto Flats South fire at 155,983 acres, was not threatening any structures but was producing enough smoke to leave large areas of the state in a haze.

The fire slowed somewhat when it reached an area previously burned in 1981 and was pretty much stopped over the weekend in an area of low brush, grasses and wetlands.

However, if conditions remained the same -- as they were expected to -- the fire was expected to reinvigorate. Temperatures were a toasty 85 degrees in Nenana on Monday under nearly cloudless skies, with winds blowing between 10 and 25 mph.

"We will be chasing all three fires today," said Gary Lehnhausen with the state Division of Forestry. "All the fires are going to grow today."

He said most fire suppression resources were being put on the June Creek fire south of Nenana. At just 360 acres, the fire is the smallest of the three. Fire officials hope to stop it before it grows.

The Railbelt Complex fire was threatening more than 100 cabins and nearly as many outbuildings. Some of the cabins and remote homes are lived in year-round.

Lehnhausen said winds out of the south likely would move smoke closer to Fairbanks.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, Alaska had four large wildfires that were burning Monday on 184,160 acres. Texas was the only other state with four large fires burning, but the acreage was small in comparison -- just 1,710 acres.

Alaska's fires were being caused by lightning strikes.

Fires were burning in and near Denali National Park, about 175 miles north of Anchorage, and Wrangell St.-Elias National Park, about the same distance east of Anchorage. Hazy skies periodically blanketed both parks.

Two new fires broke out in an unusual area at Denali National Park -- at the base of the Ruth Glacier. One burning in thick vegetation was put out. Firefighters were keeping an eye on the other. It was moving away from a lodge.

Technology is helping National Park Service personnel at Wrangell St.-Elias get a better handle on a fire there. The goal is to keep the 12,000-acre fire south of the Chitina River. One idea being considered is to burn out vegetation south of the river -- a move that would worsen the haze.

Brian Sorbel, a geographic information specialist with NPS, said Google Earth is being used to keep tabs on the fire. Google Earth provides detailed satellite imagery.

During the morning briefings, the maps can be used in conjunction with other programs, such as one that shows how wind will be affected by topography and another that looks for heat pockets.

The Wrangell-St. Elias fire will mostly be monitored.

A sprinkler system had been put around a historic subsistence camp, Warthin said.

A fire of more than 13,000 acres southeast of Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula also was contributing to the haze. Another large fire of more than 14,000 acres was burning northeast of Fort Yukon.

More than 60 fires are currently burning in Alaska.

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