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Stuart Creek Fire doubles in size to 79,037 acres; evacuation order lifted

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Posted: Sunday, July 7, 2013 12:57 pm | Updated: 4:37 pm, Tue Jul 23, 2013.

Updated 3:17 p.m.: The evacuation notice was lifted at 3 p.m. today by the Interagency Management Team.

A news release sent by the team warms residents returning to their homes to nonetheless be aware of "active, uncontrolled fire" within the evacuation area. People returning to the evacuation area were also advised to be careful with food left in refrigerators during the evacuation notice and to consider disinfecting well water.

An evacuation "watch" remains in place between 16 Mile and 34 Mile. An evacuation watch is an advisory to be prepared for another evacuation.

The incident management team reported light rain/ mist was falling on the fire this afternoon in the Two Rivers area.

Updated 12:15 p.m.: The fire's total area is 79,037 as of the most recent mapping this morning, according to Michelle Weston with the interagency crew fighting the fire. That's about 123 square miles. The fire briefly crossed to the north side of the Chena River on Sunday afternoon but has not been burning to the north today, she said. Rain is in the forecast.

Updated 8:20 a.m. Monday—New mapping shows the Stuart Creek 2 Fire to have grown by about one-third since Saturday to 64,570 acres, according to this morning’s update from the multi-agency Joint Information Center.

The fire is listed as 5 percent contained.

“The fire spread significantly to the north and northwest yesterday (Sunday),” the report reads. “Heavy smoke limited the use of aircraft and the increased fire behavior slowed or stopped progress on fire line construction in most of the fire area.

“Approximately 600 residents in the Pleasant Valley and Two Rivers area were evacuated between mileposts 18 and 34.”

The report says the 684 personnel assigned to the fire will continue to provide structure protection and try to hold the fire south of the Chena River.

It says crews continue to build fire line to the north along the fire’s western flank and will try to reach the Chena River today. It also says they are holding the fire on the Quarry and Brigadier Road on the south flank.

Also, two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters are available to protect private property in Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley, according to the report.

Updated 7 a.m. Monday—The incident management team handling the Stuart Creek 2 Fire tweeted just after 6 a.m. this morning that the fire’s size is 64,570 acres and that it is 5 percent contained.

An updated acreage is expected later today. Fire officials say they are constantly evaluating the fire danger and will lift the evacuation order only when it is safe to do so. 

Updated 11:35 p.m. Sunday— Residents along a central stretch of Chena Hot Springs Road were asked to evacuate their homes Sunday afternoon as flames from the Stuart Creek 2 Fire approached the area.

As of about 9 p.m. Sunday, there had been no reports of any structures having burned, according to Michelle Weston, fire information officer at the Alaska Fire Service on Fort Wainwright. The fire’s exact boundaries were difficult to map because the smoke was so thick, she said.

Updated 7:15 p.m.—Alaska State Parks has closed the Chena River State Recreation Area from mile 26 to mile 50.5 Chena Hot Springs Road. The area is closed to public use until further notice because of the Stuart Creek 2 Fire. 

"Closing the park to public use will help prevent park visitors becoming stranded from Fairbanks in the event of a road closure," the agency said in a news release. "It will also help focus fire and emergency resources on protecting structures and community members directly threatened by the fire."

Updated 5:45 —  There have been no official reports of the fire reaching Chena Hot Springs Road, said Billie Sundgren, a spokeswoman with the interagency firefighting group. 

Updated 4:30 — For now, Chena Hot Springs Road can be driven at motorists’ discretion, according to spokesman Richard Hadley with the interagency crew fighting the fire. A change in fire behavior could cause a “hard closure” he said.

The fire reached an island in the middle of Chena River between 28 and 30 Mile, but had not crossed to the north bank, he said. 

______________________________________

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Residents along a central stretch of Chena Hot Springs Road were asked to evacuate their homes Sunday afternoon as flames from the Stuart Creek 2 Fire approached the area.

As of about 9 p.m. Sunday, there had been no reports of any structures having burned, according to Michelle Weston, fire information officer at the Alaska Fire Service on Fort Wainwright. The fire’s exact boundaries were difficult to map because the smoke was so thick, she said.

Residents from 18 Mile to 34 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road were asked to leave at 1 p.m. Sunday. The road is about 55 miles long, stretching eastward from Fairbanks. It runs mostly parallel to and north of the Chena River.

The 40,000-acre fire was ignited in late June by military artillery in the hills south of the road and river. After blowing up last week, the fire reached the south bank of the Chena River near 28 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road by mid-afternoon Sunday.

Weston said about 9 p.m. that flames had been seen along the south bank of the river from 26 Mile to 30 Mile. The road and river are near each other in that area.

The fire jumped a river channel to a north bank at one point. Weston said about 400 square feet burned before firefighters extinguished the flames.

The evacuation notice sent residents rushing to collect personal property Sunday afternoon.

Beth Hughes, a resident of Pleasant Valley, was at work at Chena Gas at 3 Mile when an ambulance driver stopped by the station and announced the evacuation.

Hughes drove to her home at 22 Mile, took her computer and some photographs, and left.

When she returned about 3:15 p.m., troopers were setting up a checkpoint near the Two Rivers Lodge at 15.9 Mile. Some vehicles were headed back into the evacuation area and many more were leaving, she said.

“I’ve never been so close to a fire before, and it’s leaving me kind of confused. I’m seeing things I may never see again,” she said.

At 19 Mile, the smoke got much darker, “like turning off a light,” and it had a spooky yellow hue, she said.

Alaska State Parks closed the Chena River State Recreation Area about 6 p.m. Sunday. The recreation area, which lies on both sides of the road from 26 Mile to 50.5 Mile, features several trails, cabins and campgrounds. It was declared off limits to public use until further notice.

Weston said the road was still open to drivers at 9 p.m., but Alaska State Troopers had set up checkpoints at 6 Mile, 16 Mile and 32 Mile.

“So really people shouldn’t be driving at whim through there,” she said. “It’s dangerous.”

As of about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, 93 adults and 57 children had said at a checkpoint that they were evacuating, said Richard Hadley, also a fire information officer.

An emergency shelter was set up at the Weller Elementary School at 2.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road. Weston said Sunday night that she’d been told about 20 families had arrived at the school.

Sunday evening, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Police Department sent out a message that some housing and showers were available on campus “for affiliated persons.” They can contact conference services at 474-6769.

Residents of the evacuation area were asked to take livestock and pets to the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds on College Road. Boats, motor homes, equipment and other large items could be placed at the West Valley High School parking lot, 3800 Geist Road, authorities said.

Fire managers said Sunday afternoon that they want to get people back to their homes as soon as possible.

“The fire danger will be constantly evaluated and the evacuation order will be lifted as soon as it is safe for you to return,” said a statement from the management team Sunday afternoon posted on the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center website.

People returning to any homes that lost power should evaluate food in freezers and refrigerators, according to the statement.

“Refrigerated items should be safe as long as power has been out no more than a few hours,” it said. Full freezers will stay below freezing for a few days.

If a power outage has occurred, private wells should be disinfected, according to the statement. For information on how to do so, contact the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation online at www.dec.state.ak.us.

People who want information about the fire can call 356-5511 around the clock, Weston said.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.

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