Interior Alaska wildfires flare up with wind, but soggy storm expected to dampen flames

A yellow and red super scooper plane, dumping water over smoke emerging from mountainous terrain
A plane dumps water on a mountainside involved in the Riley Fire near the entrance to Denali National Park. (Emily Miller/National Park Service)

A group of wildfires north of Fairbanks has prompted evacuations, just as strong winds across the region Wednesday further fanned the flames.

The Grapefruit Complex had burned about 70,000 acres around miles 30 to 65 of the Elliott Highway, as of the most recently available information. An evacuation order was in effect for 165 homes and recreational cabins, affecting an estimated 120 people.

Meanwhile, another fire popped up closer to Fairbanks, and, farther to the south, crews continued to make progress on the Riley Fire near Denali National Park, which remained closed Wednesday.

KUAC’s Dan Bross has been tracking the wildfires and, like many Interior Alaska residents, suffering through the smoke they’re producing. Bross says wetter weather is on the way, but strong winds Tuesday and Wednesday didn’t help.


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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dan Bross: Yeah, very windy this afternoon and specifically up at the Grapefruit Fire. They told me that they had 30 to 40 mph winds (Tuesday), and they were 25 to 30 (Thursday) afternoon. But also the anticipation is that we’re going to get rain over a wide area of the Interior over the next few days.

Casey Grove: With that wind, did they see significant fire growth with the Grapefruit Complex?

DB: When I asked them that, they said, well, that’s what they anticipate. But it was really smoky and really windy, so they could not get aircraft in the air to really have a look. And even if they could, they couldn’t probably see very much because of the smoke. So they didn’t really have anything definitive to say about that. But, you know, that was sort of the assumption. Really windy, hadn’t rained yet (Wednesday) afternoon, so they anticipated to see growth.

And they were in defensive mode. They were in what they call “point protection” mode. So when these fires get big enough, and especially when they’re active, like with wind, it’s not like they can go in there and really, quote, “fight” them. They do what’s called point protection, where they focus on the values at risk, things like homes or Native land allotments or businesses, anything developed, and try to make sure it’s clear around there, that there aren’t trees right up against the house or brush right around the house. No firewood or propane tanks or gasoline storage, anything like that, so that if the fire does sweep across, there’s the best chance that it won’t burn the structure.

CG: Well, then, you know, to the south of Fairbanks, of course, is Denali National Park. And I think they’re closed again because of a wildfire there. What can you tell me about that one?

DB: Right, so that’s the Riley Fire. It started over the weekend, on Sunday. And they really went after that fire with a lot of aircraft, as well as people on the ground. And so they really, really worked that fire hard, because it’s right across the Nenana river from what everyone knows, they’re the tourist strip called Glitter Gulch, businesses there. It’s about a mile north of the entrance to Denali National Park where, you know, there’s a campground and the park headquarters and the visitor center and just like a whole lot of activity and infrastructure there. So they really worked that fire hard and were really successful at, I’d say, herding it to the northwest, like into the woods, up the mountains where there’s lesser fuels, to get it out of the black spruce. And yeah, they had 25% containment as of (Wednesday) morning. I’m sure there’ll be an updated figure later this evening. But yeah, good progress, but that has not changed anything in regards to park operations. They remain completely shut down there.

CG: And I guess, changing some folks’ vacation plans in the process.

DB: Yeah, this is the most popular week of the year at Denali. And they told me that typically this time of year this week, they see 3,000 people through the visitor center a day. So yeah, a big hit to people who had planned vacations and we’re hoping to see Denali National Park this week.

CG: Yeah. Well, then, just (Wednesday) afternoon, we heard about a fire that is even a little closer to Fairbanks than the Grapefruit Complex. And that just kind of started as far as we know, just (Wednesday) afternoon, right?

DB: Yeah it was reported (Wednesday) afternoon up near the Chatanika River. So yeah, in that general area south of the Grapefruit Complex. And actually some of the firefighters that were working on that complex were sent by boat on the Chatanika to work the fire, and they also had some aircraft in there, some water scoopers and a helicopter with a bucket, hitting that with quite a bit of water. And the last report I saw was that they had knocked it down pretty well. But the winds were still pushing it toward the Chatanika River, where there are some cabins within about a mile. So they were very conscious of that and trying to steer the flames away.

CG: I guess the the folks that are looking at these fires, the fire managers, are hopeful that some wetter weather coming in here will allow them to get some of these fires, you know, more fully contained. And what are they telling you about that?

DB: So the National Weather Service has been reporting since Sunday night about this Siberian Low that’s forecast to sweep down from the northwest across much of mainland Alaska and bring cooler weather and rain, like potentially significant rain over the next few days.

CG: I mean, I know most people, we hope for sunny weather over holiday weekends, but do you think Fairbanks residents are going to be complaining if it’s raining?

DB: No, I think people are welcoming the rain at this point. We got a real good dose of smoke, and I think people are ready for the fires to be tamed and get back to breathable air.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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