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Lightning starts wildfires near Nenana

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Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2012 12:33 am | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

UPDATED AT 11:50 p.m. — FAIRBANKS — The wildfire fire season is heating up in the Interior.

Seventeen new fires were reported Sunday, 13 of as a result of lightning strikes that occurred Saturday and one of the fires, the 9,000-acre Bear Creek Fire, was burning only a few miles west of the Parks Highway between Nenana and Healy.

More than 100 firefighters were battling the blaze, which started as three different fires on Saturday but merged into one on Sunday, public information officer Jim Schwarber with the state Division of Forestry said.

The fire is burning west of the Parks Highway near 269 Mile and was being driven north by wind. The fire was volatile enough that fire officials encouraged residents in a small subdivision not far off the road to voluntarily evacuate Sunday, Schwarber said.

“Given the erratic fire behavior we thought it would be prudent to encourage a volunteer evacuation,” he said.

Schwarber did not know if any residents left their homes, only that Alaska State Troopers were advising them of the situation.

Two of the three fires that merged were caused by lightning while the biggest was human caused. The fire had grown by about 7,500 acres since Saturday morning.

Firefighters nearly had the fire contained Sunday before the wind kicked up, Schwarber said.

“This morning we were almost able to button it up but the winds blew up and grabbed the fire and it made a three-mile run in less than an hour,” Schwarber said. “It blew past the (contingency) lines and kept going.”

The fire was moving so fast some firefighters had to be pulled out of the field by helicopter for safety reasons, he said.

A Type 1 management was scheduled to take over the fire from a Type 3 team starting today, which likely will result in more firefighters and aircraft being assigned to the fire, he said.

“We’re taking this fire real seriously and gearing up appropriately,” Schwarber said. “It’s only three or four miles from the highway, which is an important transportation link.”

No structures had been confirmed lost and firefighters were working to protect cabins and other structures in the potential path of the fire, he said.

A late-afternoon thunderstorm produced more than 2,000 lightning strikes on Saturday, most of which were south of Fairbanks near the Alaska Range. Most of the other fires that started as a result of the strikes were small enough and in remote enough locations they did not pose a threat and were placed in monitor status.

North of Fairbanks, meanwhile, more than 200 firefighters continued to battle a 2,600-acre near the Koyukuk River village of Allakaket that escaped from the village dump on Wednesday and spread quickly before firefighters could respond.

Firefighters had made good progress on the fire and 10 smokejumpers were taken off the fire Sunday to be available for initial attack response for other fires, said Mel Slater, public information officer for the Alaska Fire Service. The Allakaket Fire was 30 percent contained as of Sunday, he said.

“They’re still finding some hot spots and working to extinguish those,” Slater said.

A small, human-caused tundra fire near the village of Anaktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range about 350 miles north of Fairbanks was reported Saturday and drew an aerial response from the AFS.

Local residents on four-wheelers attempted to put the fire out with fire extinguishers but AFS was called when the fire began spreading. Three water-dropping aircraft from nearby Bettles responded and contained the fire, which was then turned over to the Anaktuvuk Pass fire department, according to an AFS report.

The Division of Forestry was checking into reports of smoke near Haystack Mountain, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks off the Steese Highway, but Schwarber didn’t know anything more. The agency had received two or three calls reporting smoke in the area, he said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer contributed to this report.

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