Hundreds flee Interior wildfires

200 workers at Fort Knox gold mine among the evacuees

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Hundreds of people and their pets fled a wildfire in Alaska's Interior on Thursday as fire crews knocked on doors to urge others living along the Elliott Highway to pack their things and leave as soon as possible.

Fire managers were braced for possible strong winds that could make hot, dry conditions worse on the 225,000-acre Boundary fire, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks.

"Structure protection is our focus today," said Brett Ricker, a spokeswoman with the state Division of Forestry. "Conditions have been so extreme. We're off the charts when it comes to extreme fire behavior. This is really a special case."

People began leaving the area Tuesday, heading to Fairbanks. About 200 workers at the Fort Knox gold mine, 25 miles northeast of Fairbanks, were evacuated late Wednesday, but mine officials said they were resuming operations with a small crew of 15.

"It's a little better than we thought yesterday. The fires are a little bit farther north," said John Wild, general manager of Fairbanks Gold Mining Inc., which owns the mine. The returning crew will be able to run at a reduced capacity for at least five days, Wild said.

The fire was most active Thursday at about Mile 14 of the Elliott Highway and near Mile 29 of the Steese Highway, Ricker said. Crews were urging residents between miles 10 and 28 to get out.

Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski was in Fairbanks to assess the worsening situation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Thursday the fire would be eligible for federal funding to pay for most of the firefighting costs. A national firefighting management team took over management of the fire on Wednesday.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents at a high school in Fairbanks. Dogs and other animals - including 42 miniature horses, 12 reindeer and nine pregnant pigs - were taken to the state fairgrounds. Sled dogs were taken to a fenced baseball park and to the homes of local mushers, said Jeanne Olson, manager of the borough animal control.

"Some of the animals are a little confused," she said. "Our greatest concern are the exotic birds like parrots because they're so susceptible to smoke. But they seem to be doing OK so far."

Fire officials said the blaze is not a threat to Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city. The big problem there is dense smoke, said Ricker, whose office is in Fairbanks.

"It looks prehistoric here, like a wasteland because it's so smoky," she said. "The sun is a neon orange ball in the sky, and the sky looks like mud."

Elsewhere, two fires were threatening Eagle Village in northeast Alaska just west of the Canada border as well as the town of Eagle, three miles west of the village. The fires are part of a 180,000-acre complex of blazes, said Greg Moss with the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, which was assisting state fire crews.

One of the fires originated in the Yukon Territory but crossed the border Wednesday, stopping at the far bank of the Yukon River 500 yards from the village. The other fire was about nine miles from Eagle, a town with a summer population of 200. It originally was moving about two miles a day, but slowed as winds diminished over the last two days.

Moss said no one has been evacuated, but residents have spent the week clearing brush, trees and wood piles around their homes. Additional firefighters were scheduled to arrive Thursday night.

"People who have been here 30 years have never seen this kind of behavior," Moss said.

To the south, fire crews were keeping an eye on the Taylor Highway - the only link to Eagle - as they battled several fires in the area.

"We've got more of a priority to keep the highway open to get supplies to the Eagle crews," said fire information officer Mike Heilman.

Farther north, the 157,000-acre Pingo fire near Venetie was holding at 2 1/2 miles from the village of about 300 people, said fire information officer Tom Kempton.

There were 61 active fires in Alaska on Thursday, nine of which were staffed. The rest were being monitored. So far this year, 331 fires have burned more than 1.1 million acres.

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