Some 1,200 people fled their homes and businesses northeast of Fairbanks along Chena Hot Springs Road Sunday afternoon as flames from the Stuart Creek 2 fire, first ignited by military artillery, spread rapidly.
The fire prompted the state to shut down the entire Chena River Recreation Area Sunday evening.
Earlier in the day, fire officials ordered an evacuation for everyone living from Mile 18 to Mile 34 of the road -- but the closure of the Chena River Recreation Area effectively extends the evacuation zone all the way to Mile 59.5, near the famed Chena Hot Springs Resort.
The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at Weller Elementary School, at Mile 2.5, and Fairbanks North Star Borough officials began registering people who'd evacuated -- as well as those who refused to leave the zone.
Weather not helping
Temperatures in the low 70s combined with strong winds out of the southeast fanned the flames, pushing the fire to more than 40,000 acres – an overnight jump of some 8,000 acres -- to the southern banks of the Chena River by late Sunday. Fire officials said the gusts could eventually push the blaze over the river and towards Chena Hot Springs Road between miles 18 to 20. No homes or structures have been lost yet; nor have there been any injuries.
About 600 firefighters have been deployed. The Alaska Fire Service said several aircraft are also tackling the flames from above, but thick smoke prevented the aerial firefighters from seeing how much the blaze grew Sunday afternoon.
Residents reported choking smoke and ash falling in the areas of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley, both neighborhoods inside the evacuation zone.
"It got pretty chaotic for a few hours as people tried to evacuate," said Becky Alexander, who owns the Pleasant Valley Store inside the evacuation area. Despite the order to leave, Alexander said she isn't closing up shop yet.
"I have to stay here to keep the gas pumps open for everyone trying to get out of here. Even the fire trucks need my diesel," said Alexander, who added she would leave when she "saw the firefighters themselves scrambling to get out."
Dangers on military property
The fire started June 19, ignited by Fort Wainwright artillery training on nearby military land. The blaze's location is complicating firefighting efforts because the danger of possible unexploded ordinances has prevented ground crews from entering the main fire area.
The Stuart Creek 2 wildfire has been smoldering on a training range land south of Chena Hot Springs Road. It flared up July 2, pushed by increasing winds in the area, a sparsely populated series of rural subdivisions on the way to Chena Hot Springs Resort.
When the training took place, the entire Interior was under a Red Flag Warning – meaning no open flames, fireworks, burning, or campfires were permitted because of extreme fire danger.
Both BLM and the Fort Wainwright Fire Department recommended the Army cancel its artillery training that day, but the Army decided to go ahead.
"We serve in an advisory capacity, along with the Fort Wainwright Fire Department, to the military. But ultimately all decisions about training on military land are the military's," said Kent Slaughter, BLM's Alaska Fire Service Manager.
Commander talks to community
Fort Wainwright Commander Col. Ron Johnson addressed more than 300 people who gathered at the Pleasant Valley Community Center on Saturday night, but according to people at the meeting, he did not explain why the Army went ahead with live fire training during the fire-danger warning.
Repeated requests for information from the Army went unanswered Sunday.
More than 600 people are fighting the fire, including two units from Pennsylvania – the first time that state has sent entire crews to Alaska.
"This fire shows extreme behavior, aided by strong winds and dry conditions and could grow to more than 60,000 acres in size," said Bernie Pineda, BLM Public Information Center Manager.
In total, the Fire Service estimates there are about 430 homes, and another 400 buildings within the fire evacuation zone. Firefighters say they are trying to protect the buildings with ground crews, while using sprinklers where available to keep structures safe.
The weather is forecast to be in the low 70's to mid-60s with showers in the coming days, but for now the fire remains extremely active and growing.
"People were upset with the Army at last night's meeting," said store owner Alexander. "But now isn't the time for that. Right now, we are just concentrating on the fire itself. It may have been started by human error, but Mother Nature is in charge now."
This is a developing story. Please return for updates. Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com