- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Fire crews are attacking intensifying wildfires in Alaska that together grew more than 450 square miles in one day, officials said Friday.

The smoky wildfires have prompted more residents to flee their home in voluntary evacuations.

Fire managers said that 28 new fires were logged in the state Thursday, bringing the total to 316 fires burning almost 1,410 square miles.

“It’s definitely a busy season in Alaska,” fire information spokesman Tim Mowry said. “That seems like a huge number to a lot of people, but this is a huge, huge state.”

Much of the activity is taking place in Alaska’s warm and parched interior, where conditions have sometimes been too smoky to fly fire crews around or conduct aerial fire mapping. Many wildfires in Alaska are so remote and far from populated areas that they are monitored only rather than being suppressed.

The tiny Kuskokwim River villages of Aniak and Chuathbaluk, however, are among multiple communities threatened by nearby blazes.

Aniak city manager Megan Leary said 57 elders, children and medically vulnerable people were flown to Bethel Thursday mostly because of thick smoke from the 30-square-mile fire, which is across from the village but on the other side of the river. Others from Chuathbaluk, 11 miles upriver, fled by boats to Aniak and then were flown to Bethel, where the Alaska National Guard has opened its armory there for displaced people.

“We’re just taking precautionary measures,” Leary said Friday in a phone interview from Aniak. “We didn’t want to have it become a bigger issue. “

Smoke also was a primary concern in Chuathbaluk, a community of 130, which is less than 2 miles from a 7-square-mile fire. Patty Yaska, who works for the village traditional council, said some people besides the ones who went to Bethel also left on their own. And on Wednesday, when fire got very hot and high flames were visible, Yaska compiled a master list of the village residents.

“Because if we did have to evacuate, we wanted to do a headcount to make sure we weren’t leaving anybody behind,” she said. Friday dawned with a light drizzle and there is some rain in the forecast, she said.

With so many fires spreading rapidly, fire managers are prioritizing where to send crews stretched thin as older fires wind down.

Earlier this week, residents in other threatened communities and rural neighborhoods fled during voluntary evacuations.

Meanwhile, crews continued to make progress at two large human-caused fires that destroyed homes and other structures and had threatened communities north and south of Anchorage before firefighters got a break from cooling temperatures.

The National Weather Service is calling for cooler temperatures in the interior, at least through Saturday. It was raining in Fairbanks Friday, with up to half an inch of rain expected in that area through Saturday and heavier amounts east of town predicted, National Weather Service meteorologist Nick Schwartz said.


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