Cooler, calmer weather helps firefighters in Alaska's Interior

Saturday, July 3rd 2004, 10:00 am
By: News On 6

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) _ Firefighters hoped for more cool, calm weather Saturday as they worked to slow the spread of a 215,000-acre wildfire in Alaska's Interior that has sent hundreds of people seeking refuge in Fairbanks.

Shifting wind was starting to push the fire away from hundreds of homes and businesses.

``There's been no major move of fire,'' Teresa McPherson, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Fire Service, said Friday night. ``It's much cooler now and the wind is much calmer.''

High temperatures in the low 70s and a chance of showers were forecast for the weekend, with a southerly air flow that was expected to clear some of the smoke, the National Weather Service said.

An evacuation order remained in effect for 277 homes and 12 businesses about 30 miles north of Fairbanks along the Elliott Highway. A 16-mile stretch of the Steese Highway remained closed as crews worked to extinguish hot spots, McPherson said.

The fire was smoldering without major flare-ups, after making a fast run through black spruce and nearly tripling in size earlier in the week.

The dense smoke hampered firefighting efforts as people grabbed belongings and pets and fled. In Fairbanks, the sky was beige and the air was heavy with a sooty smell.

Federal officials said Friday in Washington that five of 33 air tankers grounded in May because of safety concerns were being returned to service. Officials said no decision had been made about where to first send the tankers, which can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, but it appeared unlikely Alaska will get any right away.

``The smoke is so thick that air tankers there are not able to be used effectively,'' Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in a telephone news conference. ``There are a number of concerns in Alaska, but unfortunately the weather and wind patterns have been a major hamper to using tankers.''

Since Tuesday, hundreds of people in a handful of subdivisions and scattered cabins have sought safety in Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest metropolitan area with about 82,000 residents.

Elsewhere in Alaska, several people voluntarily left their homes Friday near a fire 50 miles east of Fairbanks. The fire was burning on both sides of the Chena Hot Springs Road, but the highway remained open.

There were 62 active fires in Alaska on Friday; 10 were staffed and the rest were just being monitored. So far this year, 333 fires have burned nearly 1.7 million acres.

In the Lower 48 states, crews worked Saturday to keep a 200-acre, lightning-caused wildfire away from the Mount Graham International Observatory in southeastern Arizona's Pinaleno Mountains.

The fire was in steep terrain less than 2 miles from the observatory by late Friday, prompting a precautionary evacuation although authorities said few people actually stay at the facility. The observatory is the home of powerful new telescopes.

Another Arizona fire, also caused by lightning, had grown to 65,000 acres and was about four miles southwest of Payson, but it was spreading mostly toward the northwest. The fire was 8 percent contained late Friday, said Carrie Templin, a spokeswoman for the crew fighting the blaze.