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Dozens flee wildfire

Officials evacuate homes north of Fairbanks in face of 117,500-acre fire

Posted: Thursday, July 01, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Dozens of people fled their homes Wednesday as a wind-whipped wildfire prompted an evacuation north of Fairbanks.

"We've been told we have to be out of here by 8 o'clock tonight," said Neva Mills, a displaced resident. "This is a major problem right now."

The 117,500-acre Boundary fire northeast of Fairbanks was burning southwest after doubling in size overnight, fire officials said.

"The situation has been changing faster than anyone can keep up with," said fire information officer Brett Ricker. "We've got extreme winds and it's incredibly dry. We've got pretty much every factor that adds up to a big fire playing here."

The evacuation began Tuesday around Mile 42 of the Steese Highway. Mills and other residents found lodging at the Chatanika Lodge on Mile 28.5 until they were told they had to leave there as the fire moved closer Wednesday. People began heading to Fairbanks nearly 30 miles to the south.

"There's nowhere else to go," Mills said.

West of the Steese, residents living along the Elliott Highway 15 miles north of Fox were being told to leave as soon as possible, Ricker said. There were no reports of burned homes anywhere, she said.

The evacuations ultimately could affect as many as 400 people, Ricker said. The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents at a Fairbanks high school. Arrangements were being made for their pets as well.

The first evacuees had gathered at the Chatanika Lodge. Shirley Franklin, who owns the lodge with her husband, Ron, said people started showing up Tuesday afternoon.

"They were all in shock last night," Franklin said Wednesday. "A lot of them got all their important papers out and pictures. That's the main thing, and their animals. ... It is sad to see."

When people started showing up at the lodge, Franklin handed out blankets and pillows, telling them to sleep where they could find space. On Wednesday morning, she took inventory to make sure she had enough supplies to feed her unexpected guests.

The lodge, which already was full of firefighters assigned to the Boundary fire, was overwhelmed. People were making the best of it, Franklin said.

"Everybody came together and helped. They made sure everybody was accounted for, all their animals were OK. We made sure all the children were accounted for," she said.

Nearly 70 sled dogs also were evacuated, according to the Fire Interagency Coordination Center at Fort Wainwright.

Elsewhere, the 143,564-acre Pingo fire near Venetie in northeast Alaska - one of the fires still burning in the Solstice complex of fires - was staying between 2 and 2 1/2 miles from the village of about 300 people, said fire information officer Tom Kempton.

Firefighters had built a 50-foot wide fire break around the entire village and had pumps and hoses in place at the nearby Chandalar River in case the situation worsened.

"We have real good fire line around there with 2-inch hoses and pumps," Kempton said. "I think it is a really defensible position."

The fire had slowed Wednesday, but continued dry conditions and strong winds predicted through Thursday could change that, Kempton said.

"We're keeping one eye on the fuels and one eye on the weather," he said. "The fire is not burning real briskly right now because there's no wind, but if the wind picks up so could the fire."

The Winter Trail fire, another of the Solstice complex fires, was estimated at 114,095 acres. The Pingo and Winter Trail fires were the only staffed blazes in the Solstice complex. About 300 firefighters were assigned to the fires.

There were 60 active fires in Alaska on Wednesday, 13 of which were staffed. The rest were being monitored. So far this year, fires have burned 977,902 acres.



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