Toll from wind-whipped Alaska fire could take days to assess

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — It could be a couple days before fire managers can assess damage and determine if any structures were lost after winds dangerously whipped a blaze burning near the community of Anderson in Alaska’s Interior into a sparsely populated subdivision, a fire official said Thursday.

Duane Van Woert, operations section chief for the fire, said the immediate focus was on suppression. He said the forecast calls for warm, dry conditions as firefighters try to slow the blaze burning just 6 miles (9.66 kilometers) northwest of Anderson.

The fire covers a large footprint in the area. Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker estimated that those who were under evacuation orders were about 18 road miles (29 kilometers) from Anderson.

The wind-fueled growth of the Clear fire Wednesday prompted urgent calls for residents of a nearby subdivision that had been under a long-standing evacuation call to leave if they hadn’t already. Evacuation orders were initially issued in late June for people living in about 45 homes in the area; an updated count of homes under the order was not immediately available Thursday.

Firefighters working to protect structures at one point Wednesday had to evacuate due to “extreme fire behavior and life-threatening conditions,” officials said.

Some residents had not heeded the evacuation order, complicating work for firefighters, Van Woert said.

Walker described the area as sparsely populated - “with folks who are strong minded, strong willed. It takes strength to reside and to make it in that area. It can be a difficult area, mainly for access.”

Areas accessed using Kobe Road and cabins along the Teklanika River within two miles (3.2 kilometers) of the current fire perimeter had been first placed under the “go,” or “evacuate now” designation late last month. The urgent call Wednesday was for residents in subdivisions accessed by Kobe Road.

Those living in the city of Anderson, located about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of Fairbanks, and Clear Space Force Station have been told to pack bags in case they need to evacuate.

The 96-square-mile (248-square-kilometer) fire was started by lightning on June 21. There is minimal containment of the fire burning in brush, hardwoods, black spruce and tundra. There are 487 personnel assigned to the fire.

Van Woert said the fire team has been getting resources but noted there are other fires in the state vying for additional support.

The fire was one of more than 235 actively burning fires in the state. Fires have burned on more than 4,062 square miles (10,520 square kilometers) this year, or more than 2 1/2 times the size of the state of Rhode Island.