Residents flee as major Alaska wildfire grows

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 08, 2011 7:03 PM
Residents flee as major Alaska wildfire grows

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - All residents near an expanding wildfire near Fairbanks have fled, making way for firefighters to combat the blaze, officials said on Wednesday.

Residents heeded an advisory issued this week recommending that people evacuate until the 17,624-acre Hastings Fire is better controlled, a state fire information officer said.

As of late Tuesday, "everybody had left," said Tacy Skinner, a spokeswoman for the wildfire incident command. "We didn't find anybody."

She said no one had been ordered to evacuate.

The fire, ignited by a Memorial Day lightning strike and located 15 miles northwest of Fairbanks, grew by 5,000 acres overnight after a significant shift in winds, Skinner said.

A total of 830 firefighters, some ferrying to the site by aircraft and some using boats on the Chatanika River, were battling the blaze on Wednesday.

The fire is expected to continue to grow, though 8 percent of the perimeter is considered contained, officials said.

The Hastings fire is one of 43 now burning in Alaska. Though some fires are much larger, the Hastings blaze is considered the top priority for firefighters because of its proximity to homes and the oil pipeline.

One cabin and one outbuilding burned on the first day of the fire, but no other structures have been lost.

The fire is also about four miles from a section of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, the 800-mile oil artery that carries crude from the North Slope to Valdez.

Pipeline operations have been unaffected, said Linda Sather, a Fairbanks-based spokeswoman for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the consortium that operates the line.

Alyeska has positioned equipment, including sprinklers, hoses and water tanks, near a remote-gate valve in the area, Sather said. But major problems are not expected, she said.

"The pipeline is constructed to withstand wildfires. We're had wildfires go through the pipeline several times. It's not unusual," Sather said.

The biggest wildfire now burning in Alaska is a 46,880-acre blaze near the town of Delta Junction, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks. As of Wednesday, 326 firefighters were assigned to that fire.

In all, 302 wildfires have burned a total 232,356 acres in Alaska this year, according to federal and state officials.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan)