A wildfire sparked by an Army artillery exercise burned close to the communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley on Sunday, forcing an evacuation of hundreds of people and animals in the heart of Alaska's Interior dog mushing country.
The Stuart Creek 2 fire, which started on June 19 but flared up last week, had burned 40,249 acres northeast of Fairbanks largely on Fort Wainwright land as of Sunday morning and was zero percent contained, said Michelle Weston, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.
At 1 p.m. Sunday, the head of the firefighting team in charge and the Fairbanks North Star Borough asked residents and businesses between Chena Hot Springs Road Mileposts 18 and 34 to evacuate, Weston said.
By Sunday afternoon, 843 residents and 434 structures had been evacuated, along with scores of sled dogs and livestock, Weston said. The Tanana Valley Fairgrounds had taken in dog teams, a horse, chickens, turkeys and a "big pig" as of Sunday night, according to an incident command Twitter feed.
A firefighting force of at least 11 crews, including three hotshot crews, the Alaska Smokejumpers and a specialized team out of California have been fighting the fire, Weston said.
An Army artillery exercise on Fort Wainwright originally started the fire, which has been burning for 18 days, said Mel Slater, a spokesman with the Alaska Fire Service.
A Fort Wainwright commander told Pleasant Valley residents Saturday that the artillery exercise took place during a National Weather Service "red flag" warning, when the public is advised against activities that could start fires, the Fairbanks News-Miner reported.
Two Rivers, an unincorporated community northeast of Fairbanks off Chena Hot Springs Road, is considered by some to be the "dog mushing capitol of the world." It is home to Iditarod mushers such as Aily Zirkle and her husband Allen Moore of SP Kennel.
"It's mushing central," Weston said.
Zirkle wrote on her website that she was one of those who evacuated Sunday.
She had earlier written about the work involved in packing up dozens of dogs and supplies when an evacuation loomed.
"Dog trucks and pickups with crates were equipped to transport every SP dog, if needed. Box trailers were loaded with dog food, water, tethers, medical supplies and more," she wrote.
Eureka-based musher Brent Sass offered his Goldstream Valley dog lot and home to evacuees on his Facebook page. He'd evacuated dog teams for wildfire threat before, he said in an email Sunday.
"It can be pretty frantic because people are stressed which means the dogs will be more stressed," he said. "Key is to be as calm as possible."
The Pleasant Valley Store & Trailside Mail, a general store and post office at Mile 23.5 of Chena Hot Springs Road that functions as a community hub, was still open Sunday afternoon, said cashier Melissa West.
The air was heavy with smoke, she said. The parking lot had been full of evacuees pulling trailers of supplies and animals all day. The Tanana Fairgrounds were open for people to move dog teams, horses and other animals.
The store wasn't closing yet, West said, but the generators were on to save coolers full of food if the electricity went out.
The state can advise but not force people to evacuate, Weston said.
Some area residents had already evacuated just weeks ago, when two other wildfires burned in the Chena Hot Springs Road areas, said agency coordination center spokeswoman Weston.
The agency was relying on social media and word of mouth in a tight-knit community to notify residents about the evacuation, she said. Many people in the area don't have land line phones or televisions.
In a hastily-created Facebook group, Pleasant Valley residents traded information on who had a horse trailer available to move animals and who had volunteered extra rooms and yard space to evacuees.
"It's very heartwarming at the number of people that have stepped forward to offer help in some way or other," wrote Christina Martin on the Stuart Creek Evacuation Assistance Page.
As of about 6:10 p.m. Sunday, the fire had jumped closer to a residential area across the Chena River, Weston said.
There are 94 active wildfires in the state of Alaska, she said. More than a million acres have burned so far in 2013.
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By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS