Correction: All four of the fires that merged to form the Bear Creek Fire were caused by lightning. Earlier reports that one was caused by humans were incorrect.
FAIRBANKS — A wildfire burning close to the Parks Highway about 100 miles south of Fairbanks more than doubled in size overnight to 20,000 acres and still was growing Monday.
The Bear Creek Fire is burning only four miles west of the Parks Highway at 269 Mile. The fire is about 14 miles south of Clear Air Force Station.
Strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity led to extreme burning conditions on Sunday, state fire officials said. The fire was estimated at just 1,500 acres Sunday morning but was up to 9,000 acres by the evening and 20,000 acres by Monday morning.
“Basically we’ve got a wind-driven event that blew out (Sunday),” said fire information officer Pete Buist with the state Division of Forestry.
The fire is actually four small fires that started Saturday and merged Sunday into one larger fire.
The fires were caused by lightning.
The fire was heading north parallel to the highway. Smoke from the fire became so thick at one point Sunday night that pilot cars had to be used to guide traffic, Buist said. The road was never closed.
Nearly 200 firefighters are battling the fire and more help was on the way Monday, Buist said. Retardant tankers and water-scooping aircraft were being used to support firefighters on the ground.
About 100 structures have been identified as threatened, and smokejumpers were providing site specific protection, Buist said. Some of the structures are cabins and some are year-round homes, he said.
The fire provided the first whiff of smoke in Fairbanks this season as south winds pushed the smell of smoke into town Sunday night. It was gone early Monday, but Buist predicted it would be back by the evening.
Firefighters nearly had the fire out when the wind kicked up Sunday and fanned it to life. The fire behavior was so extreme at one point that firefighters had to be pulled out of areas for safety reasons
The fire was not considered a threat to Clear Air Force Station at this point, Buist said.
“It’s a consideration but it’s certainly not anything that’s imminent,” he said.
Two hundred miles north of Fairbanks, meanwhile, firefighters continued to gain ground on a 2,600-acre wildfire burning near the village of Allakaket.
The fire, which started in the town dump last week and escaped to surrounding wildlands, is now 50 percent contained. Approximately 300 personnel were fighting the fire Monday.
“It’s starting to become more manageable now,” public information officer Mel Slater with the Alaska Fire Service said.
A light drizzle was falling on the fire Monday, he said.
The fire service also was monitoring a small fire 13 miles south of Eielson Air Force Base reported Saturday. The fire, spotted during a surveillance flight, was estimated at 150 acres and was burning in black spruce and brush.
Officials planned a surveillance flight for Monday afternoon to determine if the fire posed a threat, Slater said.
Firefighters should get some more help from Mother Nature in the next day or two in the form of rain, meteorologist Charles Aldrich at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks said. Showers are likely today and Wednesday in the Interior and will be accompanied by cooler temperatures.
“It looks like it’s going to be fairly widespread,” Aldrich said.
A heat wave has been baking the Interior for the past week. The temperature at Fairbanks International Airport has hit at least 78 degrees the past six days, including four days with a high of 80 or warmer.
Temperatures started to cool down Monday and will continue to do so throughout the week, with highs in the mid-60s to lower 70s, Aldrich said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.
Here are the current fire statistics provided by the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center:
Total number of fires to date: 257
Total acres burned to date: 117,450