FAIRBANKS - Firefighters took advantage of scattered rain showers across Alaska's Interior on Monday to clear more protective trail, reinforce established fire lines and snuff hot spots on the nation's two top-priority wildfires.
"The rain just started this morning," said Rich Lasko, deputy incident commander on the 200,000-acre Wolf Creek fire, 50 miles northeast of Fairbanks. "If this settles in for a few days, it will really have an effect on the fire."
On the 307,000-acre Boundary fire, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks, an evacuation order remained in effect for 277 homes and 12 businesses although a few residents have chosen to return home.
Crews were bulldozing their way around vulnerable subdivisions evacuated last week, along with a clearing protective trail along a five-mile stretch of the Steese Highway, where there was a flare-up Sunday, said fire information officer Traci Weaver.
The light rain, high humidity and cloud cover were helping crews trying to establish firebreaks that would hold if winds pick up. Weather can change quickly in Interior, which is often hot and dry in the summer.
"We should be able to really make some progress in the priority areas on the fire today," Weaver said.
It would take a half-inch of rain over a three-day period to significantly slow the advancing edges of the fires, said Pat Garbutt, a fire behavior analyst with the elite fire management team from the Lower 48 assigned to the Wolf Creek fire. Spurts of rain have no effect if they're followed by short periods of no rain that allow moss and lichen to quickly dry at the base of the fast-burning black spruce in the region.
"The moss and lichen are so light and porous, they could burn again 20 minutes after it stopped raining," she said. "I call it the rollercoaster effect."
The Boundary fire was sparked by lightning June 13. Garbutt said the Boundary and the Wolf Creek fires were the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 firefighting priorities, respectively.
On the Wolf Creek fire, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the spruce- and aspen-covered hills around the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The blaze advanced to within a quarter-mile of the resort in windy weather Sunday, but lodge is not considered threatened by the fire, Lasko said.
"We're confident the resources we have here can deal with it," he said.
The road remains open and no evacuations have been ordered, but officials have told residents and vacationers they should be prepared to go quickly to the resort's airfield - the designated safety zone - if conditions take a serious turn for the worse.
The Wolf Creek fire, started by lightning June 7, burned five cabins last week.
Elsewhere, the 13-fire Eagle complex of fires in east-central Alaska, just west of the Canada border, had burned almost 442,000 acres. The Taylor Highway complex, 35 miles northwest of Tok, has burned almost 489,000 acres.
Farther north, the fire line on the south flank of the 161,000-acre Pingo fire has held so far, halting its progression toward Venetie, a village of about 300 people, fire managers said. The Pingo is part of the Solstice complex of fires, which has blackened more than 308,000 acres and is considered 5 percent contained.
Firefighting costs so far on the state's biggest fires - Boundary, Wolf Creek and the Eagle, Taylor and Solstice complexes - total more than $8.1 million, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center said.
There are 62 active fires in Alaska, 13 of which are staffed. The rest were being monitored. So far this year, wildfires have burned more than 1.8 million acres in the state.
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