As Munson Creek wildfire grows, Chena Hot Springs stays open

A firefighter sprays a tan buildings with a hose
Logistics section chief Dane Smigleski sprays down the Chena Hot Springs Resort hotel with water to protect it from the advancing Munson Creek Fire on Monday evening, July 5, 2021. (Division of Forestry Photo)

The Munson Creek Fire, east of Fairbanks, was burning nearly 20,000 acres on Tuesday, with flames just a half-mile from the Chena Hot Springs Resort.

On Monday, residents along the last few miles of Chena Hot Springs Road were ordered to evacuate. But the resort itself continued to welcome new visitors.

“We’re safer here than anyplace else,” said Bernie Carl the president of Chena Holdings, the holding company for the employee-owned resort.

RELATED: Fire forces evacuation order for residents near Chena Hot Springs, east of Fairbanks

Carl said the resort has a wildfire response plan and equipment.

“Firetrucks, dozers, loaders — equipment is all here ready to fight the fire,” he said.

Guests were escorted by pilot cars for the last few miles of Chena Hot Springs Road.

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The resort’s decision to stay open has drawn local criticism from some on social media.

Division of Forestry spokesperson Tim Mowry said no one can be forced to leave, but he underscored that people staying puts firefighters at additional risk.

“They have to worry about saving people that did not evacuate. It just takes their focus away from what they’re trying to accomplish,” Mowry said.

But, he said, that the resort itself is safe.

“We’ve got hose and pumps and sprinkler systems around all the structures around the resort,” he said.

The Munson Creek fire is burning primarily in a remote limited-protection area. It worked its way from a ridge to Chena Hot Springs Resort over the long holiday weekend.

Mowry said erratic winds caused a flare-up Monday afternoon, triggering the evacuation order for the resort and surrounding area.

The resort has moved some people out of employee housing, which was near the outskirts of the resort. It also had to move some animals.

“We moved our horses out of that paddock and moved them into a corral that’s five acres, fenced in closer to the resort,” said Carl.

No structures have been lost, but Carl said about 1,500 acres of resort property had burned as of Monday.

Cooler temperatures and rain showers are forecast to slow fire activity over the next couple of days, said Mowry. However, he said, there’s no guarantee.

“We are trying to position more people out there, more equipment out there,” he said.

Mowry said additional crews that are expected to arrive Tuesday will swell the number of firefighters working at the Munson Creek Fire to 200. He said smoke has limited aerial operations at times, but both water and retardant drops remain an option.

With additional reporting from KUAC’s Robyne.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.