Fast-moving wildfire prompts evacuation notice near Fairbanks

a fire plume
Smoke column from the Lost Horse Creek Fire on Aug. 3, 2023. (Togie Wiehl/Alaska Interagency Management Team)

The rapid advance of the Lost Horse Creek Fire has prompted an evacuation notice for a neighborhood north of Fairbanks.

In an online update posted early Friday, the Alaska Division of Forestry & Fire Protection said the blaze was currently at 1,900 acres, with ground crews in place to engage it. A total of 40 personnel are fighting the fire.

Fairbanks North Star Borough spokesperson Lanien Livingston says the Level 3 “GO” evacuation notice, issued late Wednesday night, covers a portion of the Haystack subdivision, off the Elliot Highway.

“For the upper Haystack Drive area, residents were instructed to go, evacuate, leave that area immediately,” Livingston said. “It’s my understanding that fortunately there are not a lot of residences in that area.”

Livingston says larger areas to the south and the north were put into Level 2, or “SET” status.

“The lower part of Haystack Drive area and the more northeastern part, which is the Poker Flat area, those folks in those areas need to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice,” she said.

The evacuation notices were issued Wednesday evening due to an increase in activity on the Lost Horse Creek Fire, east of the Elliot Highway near Mile 18, about three and a half miles north of Haystack. The fire was among dozens started by lightning last week. Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson Sam Harrel says it plotted in a limited-modified protection area.

“It exhibited no active fire, no active fire growth,” Harrel said. “It was just a little ‘duffer,’ we call ‘em. It was just a little smoke.”

Harrel says that changed Tuesday with the return of warm, dry weather, so the state began hitting the Lost Horse Creek Fire with water and retardant drops. But despite the attention, Harrel says it’s continued to burn through dense forest including large areas of highly flammable black spruce, expanding significantly by Wednesday night.

“Air attack was guessing that it was between 2,000 and 2,500 acres,” he said.

Harrel says crews are being deployed to work the blaze, and into the Haystack subdivision to assess properties for structure protection. He says Alaska’s Type 2 incident management team will be taking over management of Lost Horse Creek and several smaller wildfires burning in the general area north of town. Harrel emphasizes that many areas of the borough are under Level 1 or “READY” evacuation notices.

“We all need to know our plan for what to do if an evacuation is called for our area,” Harrel said. “If we have large animals, we need to have a plan on what to do with those. If we have a kennel full of sled dogs, you need a plan for what to do. If you’re a caretaker, if you have elderly folks who aren’t as mobile, need a little more time to get places…these are the things you need to be working on in a READY status.”

The borough is still in the process of ramping up services for evacuees, and Livingston says emergency operations does not currently have an evacuation shelter available.

“That detail is still being worked out,” Livingston said. “We have been in contact with the local Red Cross, and I expect to have a little bit more information about that a little bit later.”

Livingston says the borough has some capacity to help with evacuated animals.

“We normally would have a pet or livestock emergency evacuation area located at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds; however, the fair is going on right now,” she said. “The good news is we will be able to accept and assist a certain number of household animals at the animal control shelter.”

The threat of additional evacuations is real. There are 140 active wildfires in the state, mostly in the Interior, and fire conducive weather is predicted to intensify. National Weather Service forecaster Dustin Salpzman says temperatures in the 80s and possibly 90’s are expected this weekend, along with southerly airflow and chinook conditions.

“And with that chinook flow, you also get drying of the air, which is really good for the spread of wildfires,” Salpzman said. “So it’s just going to be another one of those fire weather patterns that people in the Interior are very familiar with.”

A special statement from the Weather Service says the chinook wind will develop Friday near the Alaska Range and also push into the Tanana Valley. It says the hot, dry conditions are forecast to last into Monday before a slow cool-down begins.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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