Hundreds Flee Alaskan Wildfires

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Dense smoke from a growing wildfire in Alaska's Interior kept firefighting aircraft grounded as hundreds of people fled with their pets and belongings.

``Smoke is heavy,'' Royce Chapman, a fire information volunteer, said Friday. ``They can't get aircraft to be able to spot where it is going.''

The fire northeast of Fairbanks has tripled in size in recent days, growing to more than 225,000 acres as wind and hot, dry conditions made a bad situation worse.

Since Tuesday, a handful of subdivisions and scattered cabins have been evacuated and hundreds of people have sought safety in Fairbanks, which was not threatened but was overcome with dense smoke.

``It looks prehistoric here, like a wasteland because it's so smoky,'' said Brett Ricker, a spokeswoman with the state Division of Forestry whose office is in Fairbanks. ``The sun is a neon orange ball in the sky, and the sky looks like mud.''

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents at a high school in Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city.

Dogs and other animals - including 42 miniature horses, 12 reindeer and nine pregnant pigs - were taken to the state fairgrounds. Sled dogs were taken to a fenced baseball park and to the homes of local mushers, said Jeanne Olson, manager of the borough animal control.

``Some of the animals are a little confused,'' she said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski was in Fairbanks on Thursday to assess the worsening situation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced the fire would be eligible for federal funding to pay for most of the firefighting costs.

``Conditions have been so extreme,'' Ricker said Thursday. ``We're off the charts when it comes to extreme fire behavior. This is really a special case.''

There were 61 active fires in Alaska, where 331 fires this year have burned more than 1.1 million acres.

In Arizona, meanwhile, firefighters reinforced lines to keep a 43,000-acre fire away from three mountain towns. The lightning-caused fire was about four miles away from Payson, a community of about 14,000 about 70 miles northeast of Phoenix.

In Nevada, smoke had died down Friday from a 1,200-acre wildfire 10 wiles west of Reno. The fire had crept up to subdivisions near the California-Nevada line, but no evacuations were ordered.