- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Cooler weather provided relief yesterday for crews battling two wildfires near Fairbanks in Alaska’s interior, but extremely dense smoke grounded firefighting aircraft and prevented hundreds of people from returning to their homes.

Towering smoke clouds from the biggest fire were visible in Fairbanks, 30 miles to the south, where the sky was beige and the air smelled of soot.

“The good news today is that both the Boundary and Wolf Creek fires have spread much less in the last 24 hours than they have in previous days,” said Sarah Gallup, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

The Boundary fire was 15 percent contained yesterday and had blackened 261,000 acres, authorities estimated.

Cloudy weather, with a chance of showers and high temperatures in the 70s, was forecast through the weekend, the National Weather Service said.

The dense smoke hampered efforts to reopen areas that had been evacuated Tuesday when the Boundary fire tripled in size. Hundreds of people sought refuge in Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest metropolitan area with about 82,000 residents.

An evacuation order remained in effect for 277 homes and 12 businesses close to the fire about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. The blaze had burned through part of the evacuation zone but no homes were reported burned, fire officials said yesterday.

The Wolf fire, 50 miles northeast of Fairbanks, had charred more than 40,000 acres in a popular recreation area. Several people living in the area had voluntarily left their homes.

Federal officials said Friday in Washington that five of 33 air tankers grounded in May because of safety concerns were being returned to service. However, it appeared unlikely that 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 A. Norton said Friday.

There were 60 active fires in Alaska yesterday, only 10 of which were staffed. So far this year, 333 fires have burned nearly 1.7 million acres.

In the Lower 48 states, a 65,000-acre fire near Payson, Ariz., produced a billowing tower of smoke visible in downtown Phoenix, about 65 miles to the southwest. The lightning-caused blaze was about four miles southwest of Payson, but was spreading mostly toward the northwest. It was 8 percent contained as of late Friday, said Carrie Templin, a spokeswoman for the crew fighting the blaze.

Crews in southeastern Arizona worked yesterday to keep a 200-acre wildfire, also lightning-caused, 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 few people typically stay at the facility.

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