Evacuation order lifted but fire near Fairbanks rages

Nathaniel Herz
A Bombardier 415 Superscooper drops water while battling the Stuart Creek 2 wildfire.
Photo courtesy Alaska Fire Service

Rain on Monday gave a temporary reprieve to homes and property endangered by an intense wildfire northeast of Fairbanks.

Authorities lifted an evacuation notice for residents of the rural communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley about 3 p.m., giving homeowners a chance to retrieve belongings they'd left behind Sunday as the Stuart Creek 2 fire threatened to jump the Chena River.

As of Monday evening, the fire was still only 5 percent contained. Firefighters were working to build protective lines in anticipation of drier weather later this week.

"I don't think anybody's out of the woods yet," said Becky Alexander, the owner of a store in Pleasant Valley. "If it turned hot tomorrow, I'm sure that we would almost be back in the same situation."

By Monday morning, the fire had burned roughly 79,000 acres, or 123 square miles, up from 40,000 acres a day earlier.

More than 680 workers were fighting the fire, said Michelle Weston, a spokeswoman for the state's Interagency Coordination Center, with the help of helicopters, air tankers, bulldozers and dozens of trucks.

Alexander said the workers had been awesome, and she had a sign outside her store that says: "We think our firefighters are hot." Local residents had dropped off cookies for them, and one woman had donated 100 breakfast burritos.

"It's just like their mother raised them right," Alexander said of the firefighters.

While residents praised the firefighters, some had harsher words for the U.S. Army, which started the blaze on June 25 during an artillery exercise.

Kent Slaughter, the Alaska Fire Service manager for the Bureau of Land Management, said the BLM had advised the Army not to conduct training that day. The fire, Slaughter added, may lead BLM to re-evaluate how the agency authorizes the Army to conduct live-fire training.

Alexander said community attitudes toward the Army were mixed, with some residents angry, and others who felt that the exercises were a forgivable mishap.

"Somebody had to sign off on that, so somebody is at fault. But it's maneuvers -- it's training for the military," she said. "It was just kind of split out here -- some for, some against, some kept their mouth shut."

Dean Middleton, who evacuated his Two Rivers home with his wife, children, and dogs, said by phone that he felt the Army's actions were disturbing, adding that he was angry the Army had not done more to help fight the fire once it was started.

"I may not have all the facts, but I can tell you that once this all rolls around, the community is not going to be very happy with the Army," he said. "I would think that they would have, of all people, the resources to jump in and do every bit as much as BLM can do, and more, as far as men on the ground and resources coming in."

Area residents with cabins on the north side of the Chena River have already endured a harrowing few days, as the fire, contained on the south side, rained embers across the river and threatened to jump over.

Alexander, the store owner, said that one man had come into the store shaking, thinking that his friend's cabin near the water was ablaze. It turned out that firefighters had saved the building, but nerves were still frayed.

"You could just feel their pain, the intensity of what they had seen down there," Alexander said.

When the evacuation notice was in effect, residents feared that "all of Two Rivers might have burned," Alexander added.

Middleton said he evacuated his house within an hour, packing his car with valuables like documents, photos and guns.

"You had to leave a lot of things behind, and just hope that the fire didn't catch up to it," he said.

Now that the notice has been lifted, Middleton plans to go back to get more of his belongings.

"But we still have to be on the ready, to be able to leave," he said. "I don't think it's over."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4200.