Authorities issued an evacuation order for Chena Hot Springs Resort and area residences on Monday afternoon as a nearby wildfire intensified and moved closer to the popular resort.
At 4:15 p.m., the Fairbanks North Star Borough issued a Level 3 “Go” evacuation order for the hot springs and residences from Mile 48 to Mile 56 on Chena Hot Springs Road, advising people to leave the area immediately due to “current or imminent” danger.
As of an 8 p.m. Monday update, no structures had been damaged in the Munson Creek Fire, which was less than a half mile from the resort.
The resort’s owner, Bernie Karl, is sheltering in place and does not intend to leave, according to an update Monday afternoon from the Division of Forestry.
The intensity of the fire grew around 3 p.m. and fire managers issued the evacuation order when the fire reached a point less than a mile behind Chena Hot Springs, according to fire officials. Wind in the area was “expected to further influence fire behavior” Monday afternoon, the Division of Forestry said.
“I wouldn’t say the fire is bearing down on the resort, but it’s a one-way in, one-way out road so we’re going to be cautious,” said Tim Mowry, spokesman with the Alaska Division of Forestry.
Many of the buildings in the area are recreational cabins with a few year-round residents, he said. He did not have an estimate of how many people are evacuating.
The Munson Creek Fire, which was estimated at 11,200 acres Saturday, is now estimated to be more than 19,700 acres, thanks in part to a break in smoke Sunday that allowed for more accurate mapping.
The fire started on June 18 after a lightning strike. Last week, warmer and drier conditions spurred the blaze’s growth before light rain Saturday helped moderate fire activity.
The fire continued to spread slowly on Monday in all directions, with temperatures in the high 70s, low humidity and 13 mph winds, fire officials said.
Firefighters have put protections in place for all structures from the resort to Mile 52 on Chena Hot Springs Road, Mowry said. Fire crews have cleared brush and installed hoses, pumps and sprinklers around the structures, he said.
Crews have also taken inventory and assessed protection needs to Mile 45, he said.
“If the fire does continue moving in that direction, they can go and know exactly what they need, know what needs to be ordered and have that ready to go,” he said.
The blaze, less than a mile from the resort on Monday morning, had been “inching along,” creeping down a hill behind the hot springs, Mowry said.
Smoke conditions on Monday prevented helicopters from dropping buckets of water, fire officials said.
Fire officials are expecting cooler weather with possible rain showers starting Monday night to help alleviate the dry conditions.
As of Monday, there were 116 fire personnel working the Munson Creek Fire.
East winds Monday morning pushed smoke into Fairbanks and visibility was at about one tenth of a mile, Mowry said. All Alaska State Parks facilities east of Mile 45 on Chena Hot Springs Road are closed, including the Angel Rocks Trail and Chena Dome Trail.
Fire danger elsewhere in the state
Officials are also warning of increased danger of wildfires elsewhere in the state. The National Weather Service issued a red flag fire weather warning due to hot, dry and windy conditions in parts of Eastern Interior Alaska and the Copper River Basin.
“This means conditions could lead to the development of large and dangerous fires and cause significant growth on existing fires,” the Division of Forestry wrote in an update.
There was a red flag warning issued for noon to midnight Monday for Deltana and Tanana Flats and the Eastern Alaska Range, and a warning in place for noon to 8 p.m. for the Copper River Basin.
In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on Sunday, fire crews contained a small, 3-acre blaze that threatened several homes north of Willow near Mile 91 of the Parks Highway, the Division of Forestry said.
Incident commander Brian Carver declared it fully contained just after 11 p.m. Sunday after local fire departments and Mat-Su area firefighters worked to contain it, dropping two loads of retardant. A helicopter with a long line and bucket dumped water on hot spots throughout the evening.
But the small fire could have quickly turned destructive, warned Kale Casey, spokesman with the Division of Forestry
“We’re in that fire-prone upper Susitna area, and folks need to be much more careful. This could have been a lot worse if we had, for example, a really significant wind event,” Casey said. “Or, if we had numerous starts at once, you can’t get to everything.”
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, he said. It was started in a dense area of small outbuildings and houses, he said.
“We know that there were a lot of people using recreational fireworks and what-have-you in areas they shouldn’t be,” he said.
All fireworks in the borough are banned except for within the city limits of Houston — and with reason, Casey said.
Despite recent cool weather and clouds in the area, the duff, which is organic matter covering the soil, is extremely dry.
“If that duff is dry, it’ll carry fire,” he said.
With the Fourth of July weekend drawing to a close, fire officials and crews are hoping people “don’t make any more mistakes,” he said.
“If we can just get through today, we should see a lot of moisture — steady moisture — in the next five, six days,” Casey said.