Nenana-area evacuees returning to homes

Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Willie Lord was packing up his things Monday and getting ready to go home. He was at the high school in Nenana where he sought refuge days earlier from a wildfire that grew to over 41,000 acres.

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Lord evacuated to the Nenana High School, where the Alaska Red Cross was taking care of about 13 people Monday, after the wildfire moved too close to the airport Friday afternoon. Lord is an AmeriCorps team leader who lives at the airport and manages the program for the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

The fire caused officials this weekend to call for the voluntary evacuation of all 550 residents of Nenana.

"It went all along the air strip there," Lord said Monday, as he prepared to sit down for a lunch provided by the Alaska Red Cross of soup, sandwich and chocolate pudding.

"They had the fire break and sprinkler system set up in case the fire jumped the fire break and got too close to the facilities. They were ready to turn the pumps on and soak everything down and save the buildings," he said.

The call for voluntary evacuations was lifted Sunday, two days after the fire reached the southern end of the airport.

While the fire continues to grow, wetter weather, favorable winds and more firefighters and equipment have changed the grim scenario, Bernie Pineda, fire information officer for the state of Alaska, said Monday.

The fire is now moving to the east, away from the town of Nenana, the Parks Highway and the Alaska Railroad.

"Today is going to be another banner day in terms of fighting fire," Pineda said. "In the last 72 hours, it is chewing up about 10,000 acres a day."

Pineda said gusty winds last week caused problems.

"It kind of marched due north to the community," he said.

The winds died down Friday night and a shift in direction moved the head of the fire away from Nenana, he said.

"On Saturday morning was the first day the fire really settled down overnight. It was literally clear... It has stayed that way since," he said.

The fire, which began Wednesday, was caused by a resident who dumped hot ash from a burn barrel into the woods.

Two homes and two outbuildings had been destroyed, Pineda said.

The fire caused intermittent closures of the Parks Highway, which was open in both directions Monday. Motorists were being told to expect some minor delays.

Additional crews and equipment were expected to arrive within a day or two, Pineda said. As of Monday, six hot shot crews, 10 firefighting crews, six helicopters, 18 engines, 7 water tenders, 5 bulldozers and 415 personnel were assigned to the fire.

Pineda said crews will focus their efforts on the east end of town, working to keep the fire from moving toward Nenana again.

Holland Butler, a Red Cross volunteer at the high school, said most of the evacuees would be returning to their homes Monday night.

Lord said he planned to be among them.

"People are slowly returning to their homes... trying to get back to normal," he said.

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