FAIRBANKS - Shauna and Brent Mitchel have evacuated their house south of Nenana and were staying with friends in the town on Sunday as a 32,000-acre fire raged just a few miles away.
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"This is spooky because it's so unpredictable," Shauna Mitchel said. The fire seems to calm down during the day then come alive as the winds kick up at night, witnesses said.
The fire, which had covered 20,000 acres on Saturday, is not under control, fire officials said Sunday. Winds continued to fan flames, which threatened to jump the Nenana airstrip and the Tanana River, the only obstacles protecting the town from the blaze. The National Weather Service said showers, lighter winds and slightly higher humidity were expected for Monday, but the fire is still expected to do a lot of damage.
"There's still a lot of activity and a lot of fire danger to come," said fire response commander Tom Kurth.
Officials this weekend called for the voluntary evacuation of all 550 residents of Nenana.
An unknown number of people, mainly women, children and elders have voluntarily left Nenana, for Fairbanks, 45 miles to the northeast. About a dozen are staying at a Red Cross shelter at the Nenana High School. A mandatory evacuation could be called for remaining residents, officials said.
The blaze was caused by a resident who dumped hot ash from a burn barrel into the woods. Fairbanks area forester Marc Lee said the family responsible has received death threats.
Most of the fire growth has been to the east away from the Parks Highway, Alaska Railroad, and more highly populated parts of Nenana.
By Sunday, the fire claimed several homes, recreational cabins and outhouses as it spread east from Nenana and west along the southern edge of the Tanana River. It has jumped to at least one sandbar on the river.
Kurth said firefighting efforts by about 350 personnel are focused on protecting life and property by flushing the fire away from the highway corridor. He said periodic delays on the highway and Alaska Railroad are expected to continue.
Elder Nina Alexander has lived in Nenana 62 years and said she doesn't remember a fire ever coming this close to the city.
"I went to Fairbanks just for the trip," said Alexander, 81. "I wanted to get my mind off of the fire."
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