Winds And Rain Hamper, Help Alaskan Firefighters

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The weather proved to be both a bane and an aid to crews battling Alaska's wildfires Thursday, as gusts of wind stirred the flames and scattered rain beat them back.

The result was little advancement by the 315,0000-acre Boundary and 200,000-acre Wolf Creek fires, both north of Fairbanks.

``We did have some winds on the fire,'' Allen Chrisman, incident commander of the Wolf Creek fire, said Thursday evening. ``But then a huge cell passed over - two-tenths of an inch fell over a short time. We feel like we're in pretty good shape now. Tomorrow and the next day we may be able to make some pretty good progress.''

None of the Wolf Creek fire, near Chena Hot Springs, is contained, but fire crews hope to secure the southeast perimeter of the blaze on Friday, Chrisman said.

Gusts made the Boundary fire more active Thursday, but the winds blew from the west, pushing the fire away from buildings and other manmade structures, said fire information officer Bert Plante. The Boundary fire is 27 percent contained.

The fires poured smoke near Steese and Taylor highways, Plante said, but both roadways remained open Thursday.

Wildfires have burned more than 2 million acres in Alaska this year. There were 73 active fires in the state on Thursday.

None of the largest fires - the Taylor Highway fire at 506,378 acres, Solstice complex at 359,590 acres or the Eagle complex at 465,799- spread toward homes or critical areas on Thursday.

``Activity did increase, but not to the point where things got out of hand,'' said Marsha Henderson of the National Park Service, which is tracking the Eagle fires.

The last of more than 120 sled dogs, and other animals including horses, llamas, goats and an iguana that were taken in by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Control, were returning home Thursday. About 50 people volunteered their time and 20 businesses donated supplies to care for the animals during the Boundary evacuation.

Meanwhile, the fire danger in western and southcentral Alaska appeared to be building, said Carven Scott, the National Weather Service's science officer in Anchorage, where the forecast was for sunny skies with temperatures in the 70s for the rest of the week.

Residents of the Koyukuk River village of Bettles about 175 miles north of Fairbanks got a good scare Tuesday night. A wildland fire caused by lighting that started just a half-mile from town sent residents scrambling. The town has about 40 year-round residents, and its population doubles in the summer.

The Evansville fire spread from a couple of acres to about 1,500 acres in just a few dry, windy hours.

Thirty-four firefighters were on the fire almost immediately, with air tankers dropping load after load on the flames.

``I was on top of a giant diesel tank. I could see the flames. It basically ran parallel to town. We were watching it leap,'' said Tyler Klaes, a pilot whose family owns Bettles Lodge.

Bettles is surrounded by fire-friendly black spruce. Residents said a southern wind helped push the fire past the village.

The Bettles fire is a good indicator of how explosive much of Alaska's wildlands remain, said Pete Buist, manager of the Alaska Interagency Command Center in Fairbanks. Normally, the hot, dry weather of May and June gives way to wetter weather in July.

``But it's turning out to be not a normal fire year,'' Buist said.