Alaska News

Growing Alaska wildfires prompt new evacuations

Intensifying wildfires in Alaska have led to evacuations in several parts of the state, including a tiny village from which residents fled on boats.

Crews were being stretched thin as 57 new fires ignited in the state Monday, with much of the activity in the hot, dry Interior. Altogether, 238 fires are burning on nearly 498 square miles.

A small lightning-sparked fire grew to more than a square mile just outside the Yukon River village of Nulato, prompting evacuations Monday evening from the Athabascan community of 250.

The airport was too smoky for air evacuations, so villagers traveled 36 miles by boat to the village of Kaltag, lifelong resident Monica Ambrose-Fruehan said Tuesday. She spent all night going back and forth between the communities to drop people and dogs off. Some people chose to stay in Nulato.

Ambrose-Fruehan said in a phone interview from her home in Nulato that the fire appeared to be contained by Tuesday, but it left behind charred trees and it burned an old smokehouse at the old village site more than a mile away. Everything in the current community itself, however, was spared. Ambrose-Fruehan said she hoped to start bringing people back by Tuesday evening.

"I hope it's OK now because, oh, this is too much," she said. "Very little sleep."

Fire managers said they have requested additional fire crews from the National Interagency Coordination Center to augment crews stretched thin in Alaska.

Fire information spokesman Tim Mowry said some people are comparing this year to the heavy fire season of 2004.

"The thing is, once you get this many fires, you just can't put them all out," he said. "So it makes for a long summer."

In Alaska, many remote fires far from populated areas are monitored rather than being suppressed.

Of the dozens of active fires, only 31 are staffed. Those include other fires that have forced evacuations of residents in threatened rural areas.

A two-fire complex southwest of Nenana that has burned nearly 12 square miles prompted the evacuation of about 25 people and burned half a dozen homes and two smaller structures. Evacuations also were taking place because of wildfires near the eastern Alaska community of Eureka and just north of Fairbanks.

Meanwhile, several fires surrounded Tanana, west of Fairbanks. The rapid growth of the Tozitna fire, about four miles northwest of the village, prompted a village public safety officer to issue a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday morning, said Jennifer Costich, public information officer for the Tanana-area fires.

Crews had detected the Tozitna fire as a hotspot using satellite imagery by early Monday. By the afternoon, it grew into a "good column of smoke," Costich said around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

"By this time of night yesterday," she said, "it was an immense column and we had lightning coming out of it."

On Tuesday morning, it burned about 25,000 acres, which Costich called a "conservative estimate."

Some Tanana residents flew out of the village. Costich said priority evacuation was in place for elders, families with young children and those with respiratory or other health conditions.

Shannon Erhart, executive director of the Tanana Tribal Council, said about 65 people left the village in airplanes. Others moved their dogs near the river in case they needed to evacuate quickly, she said.

"Right now it's really smoky. I can't see planes," she said. "Some people are getting their belongings ready in case they need to grab and go."

To the east, Alaska State Parks closed trails and backcountry public-use cabins on the north side of Chena Hot Springs Road in Chena River State Recreation Area as a fire, estimated at 600 acres, burned near Anaconda Creek, said Brooks Ludwig, northern area state parks superintendent for the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

Parks officials are canceling cabin reservations into early next week, Ludwig said.

The new blazes come just as fire crews are mopping up two large human-caused wildfires that had threatened communities before cooling temperatures over the weekend gave firefighters a break.

A fire near Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula destroyed 11 structures. Officials said fire activity has picked up a bit and is expected to increase over the next couple of days because of rising temperatures.

The other fire, in Willow north of Anchorage, destroyed 55 homes, according to new figures released Tuesday after a damage assessment conducted by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Fire managers earlier said 26 homes had burned.

At the Long Lake fire near Northway, about 50 miles southeast of Tok, fire managers believe that with 48 additional hours of air and ground support, firefighters will have secured the community from immediate threat, according to the Division of Forestry.

The Healy Lake fire, east of Delta Junction, was nearly 100 percent mopped up Tuesday. Two other fires continue to burn nearby -- one to the northeast, about 10 miles from Healy Lake Village, and the other to the north, where a small crew continues to protect cabins on Hidden Lake, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the Stetson Creek fire was about 60 percent contained Tuesday. The Juneau Lake fire was 40 percent contained, with mop-up expected to continue over the next several days, according to the incident management team.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed to this article.

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