As flames approach, Interior Alaska residents in Clear told to ‘leave now’

flames and smoke above trees
Fire burns in the Kobe Ag subdivision on Wednesday. (Eric Kiehn/Task Force Leader with Northwest Team)

The Clear Fire burning in Interior Alaska made a run in the Kobe Road area on Wednesday, prompting officials to urge any residents remaining to “leave now.”

The fire was sparked by lightning in late June and has grown to more than 55,000 acres. It’s burning near the Interior communities of Clear and Anderson, roughly 75 miles southwest of Fairbanks.

Duane Van Woert, Clear Fire management team operations chief, said wind on Wednesday drove a mile-wide swath of flames north along the fire’s eastern side.

“And eventually kinda overwhelmed the lines we had into the Kobe Ag area, and made about a three mile run,” he said.

The Kobe area has been under a “GO” evacuation notice since last week. An urgent update sent out late Wednesday told those who had remained to “TAKE YOUR FAMILY AND PETS AND LEAVE NOW.” Aircraft dropped water and retardant on the fast-moving section of fire, but Van Woert said firefighters had to pull back because of rapidly advancing flames.

“There’s a few structures in the area and there’s a few residents,” he said. “I don’t have any idea if there was any damage or anything, but it definitely ran through the edge of that subdivision area there.”

Clear fire managers confirmed Thursday afternoon that fire had moved through areas where there are structures but said to the extent of fire reach and damage remained under investigation, adding that the Denali Borough is in charge of any notifications.

Van Woert said firefighters went into a point protection mode to defend structures, most of which are east of Wednesday’s fire movement. He said the fire did not get any closer to the City of Anderson and Clear Space Force Station, which remain about six miles away. Team fire behavior analyst Forrest Ownbey said the localized fire run was weather driven.

“The sky was very clear and so we had a lot of sun on the vegetation and everything,” said Ownbey. “The temperature actually rose into the 80s and then the relative humidity dropped and it dropped into the 20 percentiles. And so on the east side of the fire, we saw a lot of activity and a lot of increased fire rates of spread and trees torching, and movement of the fire.”

Ownbey said activity calmed overnight but firefighters are prepared in case similar conditions repeat.

“The forecast is warm and dry, and so we have a high potential to continue to be in fire season ’til we get several days of precipitation,” he said.

One of a dozen new wildfires over the past 24 hours is located northeast of Fairbanks. Fire information officer Jose Acosta said the Little Chena Fire cropped up Wednesday night about 11 miles northwest of Two Rivers, and 11 miles northeast of the Ft. Knox Mine, and was responded to.

“Engines and helitack, fire spotters on ATVs and a couple of air tankers,” he said. “Initially it was at about 10 to 15 acres.”

A crew has been assigned to the Little Chena Fire.

Another new fire was corralled Tuesday along the Denali Highway. Acosta said ground and air attack efforts on the Snodgrass Fire near highway Mile 81 were aided by a pond in the fire’s path.

“So, nature helped us out,” he said.

The Snograss Fire is listed at 91 acres.

A public meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening in Delta Junction by the team managing the nine-fire Middle Tanana Complex. It includes the 3,700-acre Gold Hub fire along the Pogo Mine access road, and the 2,600-acre Yukon Creek Fire along the Salcha River, where information officer Jenni Garcin said structure protection has been completed for some cabins, and others are being assessed.

“That fire did show some movement to the south and moving a little east, and we expect that one to continue to be one of the most active,” she said.

Garcin said structure protection is also targeted for Goodpaster River area properties threatened by the 1,300-acre South Fork Fire.

“There’s quite a few structures up near there, and so we’re working on a plan to get a shot crew in there,” she said.

Garcin lists communications, boat breakdowns and bear safety among challenges faced by firefighters heading up the Goodpaster River to do structure protection. Garcin and other members of the Colorado-based team managing the Middle Yukon Complex fires will provide an update at Thursday’s community meeting in Delta.

“We’ll be informing the public of what the operational plan is, what the fire behavior is doing — sort of what the forecast looks like, what we’re expecting — and be able to take some questions,” said Garcin.

Thousands more lightning strikes hit Alaska Wednesday night and into Thursday morning. Alaska’s active wildfires now tally over 230.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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