Lightning contributes to spread of wildfires in Interior Alaska

Associated PressJune 25, 2012 

A wildfire burns near the Parks Highway Sunday afternoon June 24, 2012, just north of Healy.


FAIRBANKS -- After a slow start, the summer wildfire season is heating up with lightning strikes causing more than a dozen fires in Alaska's Interior, where the weather turned hot and windy over the weekend.

One of the fires burning near the Parks Highway south of Denali National Park grew by about 18,500 acres to 20,000 acres on Monday after strong winds and high temperatures created ideal conditions for it to spread.

A late-afternoon thunderstorm produced more than 2,000 lightning strikes on Saturday, most of which were south of Fairbanks near the Alaska Range, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Firefighters fought the fast-growing Bear Creek fire with attacks from the air, where fire retardant and water were dropped on the blaze. Firefighters also battled it on the ground.

Sixteen engines were mobilized to try to protect structures in nearby subdivisions.

As of Monday, 33 fires were burning in Alaska on 117,451 acres, according to an Alaska Interagency Coordination Center situation report. Seventeen new fires were reported Sunday and 13 of those were caused by lightning.

The Bear Creek Fire was burning only a few miles west of the Parks Highway between Nenana and Healy. More than 100 firefighters were battling the blaze, which started as three different fires on Saturday but merged into one on Sunday, according to Jim Schwarber with the Division of Forestry.

"We're taking this fire real seriously and gearing up appropriately," Schwarber said. "It's only three or four miles from the highway, which is an important transportation link."

The Parks Highway connects Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Fire officials encouraged residents in a small subdivision not far off the road to voluntarily evacuate Sunday.

"Given the erratic fire behavior, we thought it would be prudent to encourage a volunteer evacuation," Schwarber said.

Firefighters nearly had the fire contained Sunday before the wind kicked up.

"This morning we were almost able to button it up, but the winds blew up and grabbed the fire and it made a three-mile run in less than an hour," he said. "It blew past the (contingency) lines and kept going."

The fire was moving so fast some firefighters had to be pulled out of the field by helicopter for safety reasons, Schwarber said.

More resources were to be brought in Monday to fight the blaze.

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