A wildfire that threatened Tyonek earlier in the week was making a renewed push toward the neighboring community of Beluga on Wednesday evening along the northwest shores of Cook Inlet.
A new fire also started Tuesday near the Dalton Highway's Yukon River Bridge and the trans-Alaska pipeline.
The Tyonek fire destroyed a cabin and two outbuildings outside Beluga overnight into Wednesday, authorities said. Local residents said they were abandoned and located near an old barge landing.
No evacuation orders were issued for the area Wednesday. Tyonek residents who evacuated Monday and returned to their homes Tuesday night were told to be ready to leave again if necessary, authorities said. Fire commanders warned Beluga residents to be ready to move just in case.
By Wednesday night, the fire estimated during the day at 1,500 acres and largely stable was blowing up again on its northwest corner where crews had hoped to contain it in an area of wetlands, authorities said. Locals reported big black plumes of smoke rising from the forest.
Norm McDonald, the Alaska Division of Forestry fire management officer in Palmer, was on the phone with the fire's incident commander around 6 p.m. when the commander told McDonald he had to go. Too much fire activity to talk.
"Things have picked up a little bit," McDonald said. "This is about the same time as last night."
On Tuesday the fire was burning near Tyonek, but then a sudden wind shift from the south around dinnertime sent flames within two miles of Beluga.
By 8 p.m. Wednesday, the flames burned a mile south of Beluga. About 100 firefighters cut firelines to try to hold the fire as northerly winds blew in from Cook Inlet, said Renette Saba, a spokeswoman with the state Division of Forestry.
"The winds are kind of a problem because they're changing," she said. "Apparently it's not as usual here to have this northerly flow from the Inlet. That's sort of what they don't want and that's what they're getting."
Wednesday night, Beluga resident Clark Smith watched approvingly as hotshot crews lit a backburn to get rid of fuel for the fire, which was burning about 11/2 miles from his house. The wind had shifted again, Smith said.
"Right now we're looking at a smoke plume that's going to the north," he said.
Two air tankers dropped retardant to slow the fire's spread, fire officials said. Three helicopters are assigned to the fire. Three wildland fire crews and members of the Nikiski fire department on the Beluga side worked to clear "defensible" space around cabins and a natural gas compressor station.
An incident management team from Washington state was expected to get to the fire by Friday, McDonald said. Ten separate wildland firefighter crews -- half of them hotshots, half initial attack -- were trickling into Anchorage on Wednesday from the Lower 48 to be split between the Tyonek and Kenai fires, he said.
YUKON FIRE NEARS PIPELINE
The Dalton River Crossing fire was originally reported Tuesday by a pilot at 10 acres but was "significantly" bigger Wednesday and expected to hit the highway, Fairbanks-based state Division of Forestry fire information officer Pete Buist said.
The fire has the potential to spread to several structures as well as the pipeline, Buist said. Several people noted that numerous fires have burned near the pipeline since at least 1976 -- the year before it began transporting oil -- and most recently about 10 years ago.
By Wednesday afternoon the fire was a little under two miles east of the pipeline, which crosses the Yukon on the highway bridge, said Alyeska Pipeline Co. spokeswoman Katie Pesznecker. The company is monitoring the fire and has positioned bulldozers on the north bank of the river, the side on which the fire is burning. Alyeska also has a water truck at a nearby decommissioned pump station, Pesznecker said.
The fire started about three miles east of the highway but west winds were pushing it toward the road, Buist said. Sixteen smokejumpers and a helicopter were working to protect several structures in the area.
One of the structures is Yukon River Camp, a seasonal restaurant, truck stop and hotel at the spot halfway between Fairbanks and the Brooks Range. The seven employees working at the food and fuel stop are monitoring the fire, said Matt Atkinson, Fairbanks coordinator for the center, which is operated by Sukakpak Inc.
High winds are pushing the fire and sending smoke down the river all the way to Rampart, he said, "which absolutely affects aviation."
The Bureau of Land Management has closed the Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station at Mile 56 of the highway and a campground at Mile 60 due to the fire.
An early spring with very little precipitation has left vegetation extremely dry around Southcentral Alaska. Burn permits remain suspended across a wide swath of Alaska including the Railbelt and Kodiak.
Low humidity and windy conditions set up the spate of wildfires, with commanders scrambling for people and air power.
The number of Alaska wildland and municipal firefighters battling the Tyonek fire and the much larger Funny River Horse Trail Fire on the Kenai Peninsula was pushing 200 Wednesday, with dozens more en route from the Lower 48. State forestry officials said the sheer number of people working those two fires -- the only big fires in Alaska right now -- show how complex both are.
Both remained uncontained -- not surrounded by suppression line like fuel breaks, dozer lines or a natural barrier -- as of Wednesday afternoon.
"We don't mobilize this amount of resources because everything's going smoothly," Buist said.
HELP FOR 'LITTLE VILLAGE'
Given unpredictable weather conditions, the Tyonek fire still poses a threat to Tyonek and Beluga as well as the Chugach Electric Association power plant north of Beluga, area natural gas lines, and oil and gas facilities like drilling pads and wells, according to an Alaska Interagency Coordination Center update Wednesday.
Chugach officials said the fire did not immediately threaten the plant Wednesday and was still about five miles away. Natalie Lowman, a spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips, said the fire had not impacted the corporation's gas field by evening, though she did not know how far away the flames burned.
Fire commanders gave Tyonek residents who evacuated Monday the OK to return home during a meeting Tuesday night. But many people, especially families with children, remained Wednesday at the Tyonek Lodge outside the village, or at fish camps on the beach or in a timber camp, said Tyonek tribal administrator Donita Slawson.
Fighting a fire off the road system made for logistical problems. Slawson was busy Wednesday morning trying to find a way to get vehicle fluids -- gasoline, motor oil, steering fluid -- to Tyonek by air as well as more food for displaced local and fire crews that are expected to double the local population soon. She put out a call on her Facebook page Wednesday, saying the village needs "every vehicle & ATV we can use right now."
The Tyonek Native Corp. is collecting food for air shipment to the village. All the activity at the Tyonek airstrip, however, meant that Spernak Airways is flying supplies into the strip at the remote oil worker camp at Shirleyville, 45 minutes away from the village, Slawson said.
The flow of firefighters into the Tyonek airstrip made things too congested for deliveries.
"We just so much appreciate everything everyone's doing to help save our homes and our way of life," she said. "We're just a little village."
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 352-6705.
The Tebughna Foundation has started an account at Wells Fargo to accept donations for food and other supplies for displaced Tyonek residents and firefighters. The account number is 775 854 3065.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER