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Heavy rain hits Interior Alaska; flood control likely to be activated

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Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2014 1:59 pm | Updated: 10:34 am, Fri Jun 20, 2014.

Friday, June 20 update: High water in the upper Chena River has led to flooding at 37 mile Chena Hot Springs Road, hot springs owner Bernie Karl reported and Alaska Department of Transportation officials confirmed this morning. 

DOT information officer Meadow Bailey said a crew at the scene reported that water is 12-18 inches deep in the roadway, rendering the road hazardous but still passable for vehicles with appropriate clearance. She stressed that drivers should use discretion and travel with caution.

FAIRBANKS—Rivers throughout the eastern Interior were rising rapidly Thursday after anywhere from 1 to more than 4 inches of rain fell across the central Tanana Valley over the course of three days.

The National Weather Service had received no reports of flooding as of Thursday afternoon, but rivers were expected to keep rising Friday and Saturday before cresting, hydrologist Ed Plumb at the weather service office in Fairbanks said.

The weather service issued flood warnings for the Chena and Goodpaster rivers through Saturday and said it's likely there will be some minor flooding at homes and cabins along both rivers. A flood advisory was issued for the Salcha River, and the weather service was considering upgrading it to a warning, Plumb said.

The areas east and north of Fairbanks received the heaviest rainfall produced by a low-pressure system that moved through the central Interior starting Tuesday afternoon.

The Goodpaster River east of Delta Junction had the highest reported rainfall — 4.38 inches — as of 10 a.m. Thursday and forecasters were calling for an additional one-half to 1 inch of rain Thursday afternoon and evening.

The same was true for the upper Chena River east of Fairbanks, where 3.19 inches of rain was reported as of 10 a.m. Thursday.

Ranger Dane Happ with Alaska State Parks said anyone thinking about floating or camping in the Chena River State Recreation Area might want to think again.

"Most all the gravel bars are under water," Happ said by cellphone Thursday afternoon from the shooting range at 36.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road.

The Chena River usually crests about two days after rain falls, so the river will probably be at its highest level this weekend, he said.

"I'm not expecting it to get better by the weekend," Happ said.

There was no water crossing the road at 36.9 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, a notorious problem area in high-water events, as of Thursday afternoon but that could change by Friday or Saturday.

Farther downstream, officials at the Chena Flood Control Project in North Pole were monitoring the rise in the upper river and expected to begin lowering flood gates at the Moose Creek Dam to restrict the flow of water and prevent flooding in the lower Chena River.

"It appears at this point it's not if but when," flood control manager Tim Feavel with the U.S. Corps of Engineers said on Thursday afternoon. "Looking at all the models, hydrographs and gauges in the watershed, it appears we'll be putting the gates in the water sometime on Friday."

It would mark the first time in almost six years the gates at Moose Creek Dam have been lowered to restrict water flow and divert into the floodplain that passes under the Richardson Highway.

"It's been awhile," he said.

At Fairbanks International Airport, meanwhile, the rainfall total for the storm as of early Thursday was only 1.04 inches, which is still a significant amount considering the average rainfall for the entire month at the airport is 1.38 inches.

Most of that rain — 0.77 of an inch — fell on Wednesday at the airport. That was just 0.02 of an inch shy of the daily record of 0.79 of an inch for that date in 1931.

The rain began tapering off Thursday morning, but another band of heavy showers passed through Fairbanks Thursday afternoon. The weather system was expected to weaken and fall apart sometime late Thursday afternoon or evening.

The low-pressure system that produced the deluge was more indicative of weather patterns seen in mid-July or August than June, Plumb said.

"This was a really unusual pattern we were in," he said. "We had this low pressure system spinning around the top of us with bands of showers on the edges.

"It basically moved in (on Tuesday) and remained stationary," Plumb said. "These steady rainfalls are more typical in mid-July or August."

Another weather system is forecast to bring more rain to the Tanana Valley this weekend. Forecasters said a low-pressure system will move into the area from Canada on Saturday and produce some showers, though not nearly as heavy or sustained as what fell the last three days.

"It's going to be moving through pretty quick," Plumb said, adding that the heaviest rain will be in the Alaska Range to the south of Fairbanks.

The rain certainly helped put a damper on two wildfires that were burning east and south of Fairbanks.

The 48-acre Steele Creek Fire near 4 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, which was started by lightning on Monday night, was declared 100 percent contained on Thursday morning by the state Division of Forestry.

While the fire has not been officially declared out yet, the 75 firefighters assigned to the fire were searching for any hot spots or smoldering fuels in the burned area on Thursday. Two crews will continue mopping up the fire until it is declared out.

The larger 100 Mile Creek Fire, estimated at 23,270 acres and located about 70 miles southeast of Fairbanks near Delta Junction, received enough rainfall that it significantly reduced the chance of the fire spreading beyond control lines built by firefighters.

As of 8 a.m., the north end of the fire had received 2.54 inches of rain while 1.81 inches fell on the south end of the fire. Firefighters have been focusing their efforts on battling the north end of the fire because there is unexploded ordnance on the south end, which is on military land.

The rain doesn't guarantee that the fire will not spread in the future, but fire officials with the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team say the control lines are "far more secure" than they were before the rain.

Officials were already pulling firefighters off the 100 Mile Creek Fire before the rain fell and continued to do so on Thursday. At last report there were 276 firefighters and support personnel assigned to the fire, and that number is expected to decrease with more rain forecast in the area.

The heavy rain certainly reduced the threat of wildfires, but fire officials said it was so dry previously that it won't take long for the ground to soak up the moisture. All it will take is a few hot days to dry things out again, said Division of Forestry spokesman Sam Harrel.

"Despite the heavy rain we still have indices that are keeping fire danger a possibility," Harrel said, mentioning the area around McGrath, 250 miles west of Fairbanks, as an example.

And as Harrel pointed out, "It's only the middle of June."

The rain and accompanying wind were blamed for a power outage early Thursday morning that effected almost 1,000 homes along part of Chena Hot Springs Road east of Fairbanks, according to Golden Valley Electric Association.

A tree fell on a power line, knocking power out to homes from 8 to 25 Mile at approximately 1:30 a.m. Crews were able to restore power to all effected members by about 4:45 a.m.

GVEA spokeswoman Corinne Bradish said such outages are "pretty typical" when heavy rain is accompanied by wind. The ground becomes saturated, making trees more vulnerable to being blown down, she said.

There was also a small outage in Salcha early Thursday as the result of a tree on a power line, Bradish said.

Staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

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Rainfall totals

Here are rainfall totals for selected locations around the central Interior at of 10 a.m. Thursday, as reported by the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

Goodpaster River — 4.38''

Upper Chena River — 3.19''

Salcha River — 2.90''

Chatanika — 2.41''

Nenana — 2.15''

Fort Wainwright — 1.58''

Two Rivers — 1.47''

Fairbanks — 1.04''

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