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Crews get 'better handle' on containing wildfire near Tok

A wildfire reported Thursday near Tok had grown to roughly 1,000 acres by Saturday, but state officials said crews were making progress containing the blaze.

"They're getting a better handle on things," Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the state forestry division, said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon. "It's really moderated."

Mowry said the North Robertson fire was 550 acres Thursday evening. About 160 people — including six fire crews and two teams of smokejumpers, with air support from helicopters — continued to fight the fire Friday morning after initial work Thursday lasted until 10 p.m.

By Saturday, the total number of firefighters helping contain the blaze had increased to more than 200.

"They were able to get a retardant line around the entire fire," Mowry said.

Members of the Tanana Chiefs Initial Attack Crew improve a saw line along the edge of the North Robertson fire on Friday. Burning along the Alaska Highway about 30 miles northwest of Tok, the fire had been reported to Alaska Division of Forestry on Thursday. Sam Harrel/Alaska DNR/Division of Forestry

Drivers on the Alaska Highway near Mile 1349, a few miles west of the fire site, reported a large smoke plume from what was initially a 2-acre fire at about 10:20 a.m. Thursday, Mowry said. An increased amount of smoke is now visible from the highway, which remains open amid warnings that commuters look out for firefighting equipment and personnel.

No exact cause for the wildfire has yet been determined, but in the absence of lightning strikes, forestry officials believe the blaze was human-caused.

A forestry update on the fire said it "moderated significantly" Friday with cooler temperatures, moister air and cloudy weather.

"Crews will continue to cut and build containment lines around the entire fire perimeter with saws, pumps and hose," the update says.

Some homes and cabins are situated north and west of the fire, but they're not immediately threatened and none is closer than 2 miles away, the division said. Mowry said a "protection group" of firefighters was assembled Friday to visit the homes and defend them from the fire as needed.

The North Robertson fire is a harbinger of increasingly dangerous fire conditions across the state, Mowry said, despite a relatively slow start to this year's wildfires.

"Tok is a very fire-prone place, and it's not surprising that they would be kicking off the party because it's been very dry there," Mowry said. "It's getting warmer and drier, and it's only one fire, but this is a sign that our wildfire season's getting started."

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