Alaska's largest wildfire continues to increase in size

Firefighters now to focus on 156,469-acre Minto Flats South fire

Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ANCHORAGE - A large Alaska wildfire sparked by lightning more than three weeks ago continues to increase in size but firefighters are keeping the blaze from taking off.

Kato Howard / Alaska Fire Service / The Associated Press
Kato Howard / Alaska Fire Service / The Associated Press

The Railbelt Complex fire 12 miles from Nenana is actually three separate fires, and at 161,344 acres Wednesday was the largest fire in the nation.

Firefighters were able to keep the 360-acre June Creek fire, the smallest of the three, from growing in the dry conditions brought on by weeks of hot, sunny weather. Gary Lehnhausen, with the state Division of Forestry, said firefighters lay fire hose around the perimeter of the fire. The fire should be contained within the next day or two, he said.

Firefighters also have kept the 4,515-acre Lunch Lake fire from destroying high-value timber stands.

Lehnhausen said firefighters now will focus on the largest of the three - the 156,469-acre Minto Flats South fire - to keep it from destroying homes and cabins.

More than 350 firefighters are assigned to the Railbelt Complex fire, including five hotshot crews.

Water pumps, hose and sprinklers were kept running near a drilling rig 4 miles west of Nenana to wet down the area in case the fire, now 8 miles west, should turn toward the rig.

Infrared imagery showing areas of heat on two corners of the Minto Flats South fire could mean firefighters will have another busy day, especially if an inversion lifts, Lehnhausen said Wednesday.

An inversion occurs when cold air sits on top of warmer air and forms a layer of humid, cooler air near the ground. The layer traps smoke but also starves the fire of oxygen, making it more difficult for the fire to grow.

Rising temperatures could lead to a hole being burned through the inversion layer. That allows smoke to escape but also supplies more oxygen to the fire, a situation that could occur later Wednesday.

"I just feel like we are going to have some pretty significant fire activity on the Minto Flats fire," he said.

The fire already has exhibited extreme behavior, even with the inversion layer in place. Firefighters report seeing flames leaping 20 to 30 feet in the air.

Temperatures near Nenana were approaching 90 degrees on Wednesday. Winds were 14 mph.

The 13,761-acre Shanta Creek fire 5 miles southeast of Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula also was a concern, fire officials said.

Nearly 500 firefighters have been assigned to the fire sparked by lighting about two weeks ago.

Firefighters have been able to keep the Shanta Creek fire away from several subdivisions four miles to the north, said Pete Buist, information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Buist said the area of the Shanta Creek fire has not burned for more than 100 years and there are a lot of beetle-killed trees in the area for the fire to feed on.

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