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Alaska wildfires hamper highway travel, foul the air

Suzanna Caldwell
A wildfire in Delta Junction earlier this summer. Courtesy Tracey Porreca

Warm weather has created a hot bed of wildfires in Interior Alaska.

More than 100 wild fires burned across the state, Thursday, most of them in Interior Alaska, which has baked under near-record high temperatures the last two weeks.

A fire near Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn slowed travel along the Parks Highway Thursday. As of the afternoon, vehicles traveling the highway that connects Alaska's two largest cities were being escorted by pilot cars from mile 317 to 344 according to Pete Buist of the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, the organization in charge of fighting the fires.

“The Parks Highway has been closed more than it’s been open since yesterday afternoon,” he said.

Fire grows rapidly

Despite pilot cars, the waits are long and movement through the area is difficult. Buist advised travelers to find alternate routes or avoid the highway altogether. “It's better off than gambling and getting stuck,” he said.

The fire, known as the Skinny's Road Fire, has grown rapidly. A 10-acre fire was first reported June 25, and by the next day it had grown to 150 acres. By Thursday the fire had burned more than 500 acres and exhibited “extreme behavior,” Buist said, due to a combination of warm, dry weather, plenty of fuel and the hilly country it's burning.

The agency said the fire had likely doubled, though they had no official numbers on the size as of Thursday evening.

Buist said no structures have burned, though several remote cabins are being monitored.

As of Thursday afternoon, the fire was less than 2 miles from Skinny Dick's roadhouse, a popular stop along the highway known for its risque name and raunchy souvenirs. The fire is within a half-mile of the highway in other areas, Buist said. The agency is closely monitoring the fire, with 129 firefighters battling the blaze.

Alaska Railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan said the fire had not hurt train service to and from Fairbanks. The tracks move away from the highway after passing Nenana, Sullivan said, and so far, the fire had not affected service or visibility, although the railroad was “keeping a close eye” on the situation.

Whether the fire did more than slow tour buses on the highway was unclear Thursday. Princess Cruises, one of the biggest tour bus operators in the area, was unable to say whether buses were being rerouted or how many travelers were delayed.

Unhealthy air

The fires also led to a smoky day for Fairbanksans. Air quality was considered unhealthy in Fairbanks and North Pole as hazy smoke blanketed the area.

Fairbanks is no stranger to bad air quality, though.  Residents expect poor air during winter, too, when cold temperatures and strong inversion allow smoke from wood stoves to settle in the region.

While rain is expected there Thursday and into Friday, the forecast shows highs reaching the 80s all the way into next week.

Denali National Park also reported a series of fires Thursday, though no structures burned and nobody was injured, according to park spokeswoman Kris Fister.

An intense thunderstorm Wednesday night led to three new fires in the park, one of which was close to a park service cabin located between the Toklat and East Fork rivers.

Fister said the fires had not impacted visibility or tour bus travel. Despite a late spring that saw snow in late May, the park dried out quickly leaving it prone to wildfires. There's no fire ban in the park (though fires are only allowed in the park's three campgrounds), but Fister said the park is urging visitors to use caution.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com