Warmer Weather Not Helping Alaskan Wildfires

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- A fire near the village of Bettles almost tripled in size as warm, dry weather over the weekend gave new life to wildfires in Alaska's Interior.

``The humidity has dropped. The temperature is up, in some places over 80 degrees. The wind has picked up. Our respite is over,'' Gil Knight, an information officer for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks, said Monday.

After several days where rain helped quell several large wildfires in Alaska's Interior, conditions were drying out, heating up and taking a turn for the worse.

``Fire danger is high to extreme through most of the state,'' said fellow information officer Bert Plante.

The Evansville Fire, at 17,000 acres and burning about one mile from Bettles at its nearest point, took top priority Monday of any of the 71 fires already burning statewide. The highest priority for firefighters was putting out any new fires, Knight said.

``Our first priority is to nail any new fires that should develop. We do not need any more surprises,'' he said.

Several residents of the Koyukuk River community watched the fire grow Sunday from the relative safety of rooftops and cars. Bettles is about 185 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

Plante said the Evansville fire and the Waldron Creek fire, just upstream from the Yukon River crossing, were pushed by the wind, creating dangerous crowning in the tops of the trees. Neither fire was threatening any structures.

When the Bettles fire broke out last week, firefighters quickly built a firebreak to protect the village of about 60 year-round residents.

Favorable winds were blowing the smoke away from Bettles.

Firefighters conducted a burnout operation Saturday night in areas behind the fire line to consume fuels that could feed the fire. However, the backburns jumped the main fire lines, leading to a flurry of aerial activity as water-scooping airplanes rushed to dump water on the advancing flames before they burned any closer to Bettles.

``That backrun got out of control,'' said Tyler Klaes, whose family owns the Bettles Lodge. ``We watched it all happen. If the wind was blowing the other way we all would have been toast...''

``It just keeps getting bigger and bigger,'' Klaes said of the fire. ``It is off our back door step. It is just a wall of smoke.''

About 200 firefighters have set up between 20 and 30 tents around the town. Tourists for the most part are staying away, Klaes said.

``It has been so windy,'' he said. ``Fortunately it has been blowing in the right direction to keep the smoke away from town. If it switches direction at that speed, this entire town would be smoked in. We wouldn't be able to see 30 feet. We would probably be cut off from the world.''

Firefighters across the state encountered prime conditions for increased fire activity. A two-mile section of the Taylor Highway near Chicken was closed Sunday when the fire got too close to the road.

``It's blowing down hard on the road,'' Plante said.

Fire officials also were keeping a close eye Sunday evening on the 338,600-acre Boundary complex of fires north of Fairbanks.

The Boundary fire was No. 4 on the priority list, behind the No. 1 concern of stopping any new fires, and controlling the Evansville and Waldron Creek fires. The Evansville fire was 10 percent contained as of Monday, the Waldron Creek fire zero percent.

A ``red flag warning'' was issued Sunday evening for strong, gusty winds and low humidity for the middle Tanana Valley.

Monday's forecast for the Boundary fire called for temperatures in the low 80s, with winds 18 mph and humidity 30 percent - all bad news for firefighters. The fire is 20 percent contained.

Fires have consumed more than 2.3 million acres in Alaska so far.