ANCHORAGE - Fed by unusually dry air and gusting winds, wildfires spread quickly through Alaska's Interior Monday, edging near the small village of Bettles and choking the Taylor Highway.
The Evansville fire, about a mile outside of Bettles, has tripled in size and become fire crews' top priority, said Bert Plante, an information officer for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks.
Wind gusts blowing from the southwest kept the fire from spreading any closer to the village of 60 on Monday, but sped its growth to 17,561 acres.
"The fire ... is spreading rapidly to the northeast. The weather is definitely dry and the wind is picking up," Plante said. He said humidity levels of about 20 percent were remarkably low for the state.
Five separate fires burned near the Taylor Highway between Tok and Eagle, delaying traffic and increasing the likelihood of the highway's closure Monday evening, Plante said.
The rain that aided firefighters battling the state's 71 wildfires is gone and forecasts call for more hot and dry weather over the next few days. The fire danger was high to extreme through most of the state.
"The humidity has dropped. The temperature is up, in some places over 80 degrees. The wind has picked up. Our respite is over," said fire information officer Gil Knight.
Fires have consumed more than 2.3 million acres in Alaska.
Several residents of the Koyukuk River community watched the Evansville fire grow from the relative safety of rooftops and cars. Bettles is about 185 miles northwest of Fairbanks.
Plante said the Evansville fire and the Waldron Creek fire, just upstream from the Yukon River crossing, were pushed by the wind, but neither fire was threatening any structures.
When the Bettles fire broke out last week, firefighters quickly built a firebreak to protect the village.
Firefighters burned vegetation behind the fire line in an attempt to starve the fire and keep it from advancing. However, the backburns jumped the main fire lines Sunday night, and water-scooping airplanes rushed to dump water on the advancing flames before they burned any closer to Bettles.
"That backrun got out of control," said Tyler Klaes, whose family owns the Bettles Lodge. "We watched it all happen. If the wind was blowing the other way we all would have been toast... ."
"It just keeps getting bigger and bigger," Klaes said of the fire. "It is off our back door step. It is just a wall of smoke."
About 200 firefighters have set up between 20 and 30 tents around the town. Tourists for the most part are staying away, Klaes said.
"It has been so windy," he said. "Fortunately it has been blowing in the right direction to keep the smoke away from town. If it switches direction at that speed, this entire town would be smoked in. We wouldn't be able to see 30 feet. We would probably be cut off from the world."
Firefighters across the state encountered prime conditions for increased fire activity.
Fire crews are focused on catching new fires before they grew. Resources are already spread thin and firefighters might not be able to handle another major blaze, Plante said.
"The right fire is going to overwhelm everything," Plante said. "You want to try to jump on those fires that have any potential to spread."