Alaskan Fires Threaten Towns

July 15, 2004
Fire managers in Alaska _ already busy with several large wildfires in the Interior _ are turning their attention to the towns of Circle and Central northeast of Fairbanks.
FAIRBANKS (AP) _ Fire managers in Alaska - already busy with several large wildfires in the Interior - are turning their attention to the towns of Circle and Central northeast of Fairbanks.

They're hoping the Crazy Fire doesn't live up to its name.

The blaze, which began last month in the Crazy Mountains west of the Steese Highway, has grown dramatically in recent days. It's now moved to within striking distance of both small towns.

Fire officials are fearful that the fire, along with several others in the area, could soon blow up in a way that would imperil both communities and cabins in between.

``It's easy to imagine that all those structures are potentially threatened,'' said Allen Chrisman, incident commander for the Crazy Fire and other fires in the Central area.

The Crazy fire is believed to have been started last month by a lightning strike. It grew swiftly Monday and hit its stride on Tuesday, racing eastward from its point of origin west of Circle and running into the Steese Highway about halfway down the 33-mile stretch of road between Central and Circle.

``It was pretty extreme fire behavior here,'' said Dave Lux, fire operations section chief.

The Steese was closed for several hours Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon because the fire was still smoldering and occasionally flaring up on both sides of the road.

Fire officials estimated the blaze was about six or seven miles away from Central on Wednesday and 10 to 12 miles from Circle.

Circle residents said the fire took out a pair of vacant cabins on Tuesday, though fire crews couldn't confirm that.

A pair of 20-person hot shot crews from the Lower 48 arrived at the fire control center at Circle Hot Springs Wednesday night.

A pair of Caterpillar tractors were moved from Central to Circle, where they were used to clear a firebreak around the town. Plans called for perhaps building a firebreak around Central on Thursday.

The smokejumpers spent Monday through Wednesday clearing firebreaks and setting up a sprinkler system at a Circle youth camp 14 miles upriver from the village on the Yukon.

``We can't deal with these fires directly, they're too big and too dangerous,'' Lux said. ``What we can do is protect structures in the community.''

While the fires were relatively calm Wednesday, fire officials expect them to flare up as soon as a condition known as inversion lifts.

``Basically, you're keeping heat under that smoke layer,'' Chrisman said. ``(The fires) aren't going out, they're just gathering energy.''

Chrisman said the fires could rapidly jump in any direction once conditions change, making the situation in Circle and Central a precarious one.

There are no plans to evacuate the towns, though the contingency came up at a meeting about the fires in Central Wednesday night.

Circle-area resident Dick Monroe had neighbors evacuate his dog team after the fire got within 600 or 700 feet of his home on Tuesday before shifting direction.

Monroe said he was awed at the sight of the swiftly-moving fire, which officials estimated leaped along a front five or six miles wide.

``It was right in the tops of the trees,'' he said. ``I used to fight fires, and I've never seen fire like that. It was the worst I've ever seen.''

Equally impressed was Stan Gelvin of Central, who said the blaze was the biggest fire he'd seen so close to Circle in 50 years. But like may locals, Gelvin found the thick blanket of smoke was affecting him more than the nearby flames.

``It's been like this for 10 days,'' he said. ``It's getting on my nerves.''

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