Forest fire shuts down Steese Highway

Authorities halt traffic until further notice between Mile 54 and Mile 70

Posted: Monday, June 28, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Forest fires closed the Steese Highway northeast of Fairbanks on Sunday night and sent firefighters scrambling to protect the fire break around the northeastern Interior village of Venetie.

The Boundary fire jumped the Steese Highway on Saturday night between Mile 64 and 65, said Division of Forestry spokeswoman Brett Ricker.

Early Sunday afternoon, the division had set up a roadblock at Mile 48. Traffic led by pilot car was being let through as smoke allowed, but by early Sunday night traffic was halted until further notice between U.S. Creek, at about Mile 54, and Mile 70, Ricker said.

The Steese Highway begins in Fairbanks, runs north 10 miles to Fox, then turns east for 152 miles to Circle, a community of 100 on the Yukon River. At Mile 128 is the community of Central, a similar-size community that's a hub for gold mines in the district. Past Mile 45, the road is unpaved and remote.

The Forestry Division estimates the Boundary Fire at 47,300 acres. Most is in a limited suppression area and Ricker said some mining camps and hunting cabins may be threatened.

"Unless it's a primary residence where there are currently people in their homes needing assistance getting out, the structures are not priority," she said.

Firefighters are focusing on where the fire jumped the road.

"We're trying to keep it on the north side of the Steese as much as possible," Ricker said. "Other than that, it's kind of a wait and see situation."

About 103 people, including some administrators, are working on the fire, she said.

At the Pingo fire, the largest of the blazes dubbed the Solstice Complex, flames burned trees within two miles of Venetie, a community of 200 on the Chandalar River about 160 miles northeast of Fairbanks and 150 miles west of the Canada border.

Fire spokesman Tom Kempton said a warning had been issued Saturday in anticipation of west winds and they arrived.

"Those winds did materialize and they were a little stronger and a little earlier than we expected," he said.

The change brought "extreme fire behavior" - a hot, brisk, wind-driven blaze - and moved the fire toward Venetie.

"We know from one flyover, it's at least on the northern edge of Venetie Lake, which is a couple of miles from the village of Venetie," Kempton said.

Winds changed again Sunday, leaving the community smoke free, and there was no evacuation planned. A crew of smokejumpers assisted by a hand crew from Buckland were running water lines with pumps to the river in case winds shifted again. Kempton also said a precautionary fire could be lit to remove fuel between the fire break and the fire.

About 80 firefighters on Saturday night were unable to reach the remote camp at Big Lake where they normally would gather for sleeping and eating. They instead spent the night at the airport at Venetie.

The community is above the Arctic Circle and usually has 24 hours of daylight this time of year. However, smoke was so thick at the camp, Kempton said, that the 54 people who remained there Saturday night were forced to use their headlamps to see.

They used pumps and hoses from nearby lakes to protect the helicopter landing pad, he said.

Smoke prevented an update on how much the 75,000-acre fire had grown.

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