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As fire crews work to save historic lodge on Iditarod Trail, evacuated workers return to cook for them

Firefighters are working at Rainy Pass Lodge to protect the buildings from the nearby wildfire, Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Photo provided by Rainy Pass Lodge)

The call to evacuate Rainy Pass Lodge came Tuesday night.

A wildfire sparked by a lightning strike was spreading fast, and within a mile of Alaska’s oldest hunting lodge and a checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Alaska National Guard helicopters evacuated 26 people, a mix of lodge employees and guests — plus two dogs — and got them to Anchorage and safety.

By the next day, about 10 flew back to start taking care of the firefighters trying to protect the lodge.

Lodge owner Steve Perrins on Thursday embarked on a massive grocery trip in Anchorage, buying cartloads of meat, vegetables, sandwich fixings, and breakfast staples like sausage, bacon and eggs.

A helicopter contracted by the Alaska Division of Forestry sits near Rainy Pass Lodge on Wednesday morning, July 24, 2019 as smoke from the Rainy Pass Fire a mile away is visible. (Photo by Greg King / Soloy Helicopters)
A smoke plume from the Rainy Pass fire, photographed around 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (Alaska Division of Forestry Air Attack)

Perrins figured he’d have almost 50 people at the lodge by Thursday night between the expanding number of firefighters taking advantage of a weather break to get to the fire and the lodge workers and members of a mining exploration team headed back out.

“So I’m in town trying to get this done before the weather closes back in on us,” he said around noon. “We are just very grateful that they are out there keeping this thing at bay.”

As of midday Thursday, the fire remained about a mile from the lodge, Alaska Division of Forestry fire officials said.

Bad weather prevented fire crews from getting to the area through much of the day Wednesday, public information officer Sarah Saarloos said. But by Thursday, there were 24 firefighters, mostly state crews plus two smoke jumpers. They’ll focus on the fire’s western edge closest to the lodge.

The fire grew from 3-5 acres Tuesday to an estimated 120 acres by Wednesday, though more accurate mapping has since put the size at just under 100 acres, Saarloos said. No significant rainfall has fallen in the area, but rain was possible Friday.

The lodge was supplying most of "the logistical needs for the firefighters” because of the fire’s remote location, she said.

The fire marks the first time in Perrins’ 16 years of ownership and 42 years of association with the roughly 80-year-old lodge that such an evacuation has had to happen. Twenty horses at the property were released for their safety, but remain in the area.

Perrins said he’s all too aware how many fires are burning around Alaska this unusually hot summer -- nearly 600 burning across more than 2.1 million acres -- and the possibility that another start that threatens somebody else could draw crews away.

“We’re only one very old historical lodge in the middle of it,” Perrins said.

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