Reinforcements scheduled for Alaska wildfires

Willow Fire
A State Division of Forestry air tanker works the Sockeye fire north of Kashwitna Lake on Sunday, June 14, 2015, near Willow, Alaska. The wildfire north of Anchorage shut down a key highway and forced the evacuation of about 1,700 structures after it mushroomed in size. (Bill Roth /Alaska Dispatch News via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT KTUU-TV OUT; KTVA-TV OUT; THE MAT-SU VALLEY FRONTIERSMAN OUT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Another 300 firefighters are joining the fray in Alaska against wildfires that threaten rural highway communities north and south of Anchorage.

The ground reinforcements from Lower 48 states and Canada expected Wednesday, plus additional support staff and aircraft, will help battle blazes near the communities of Willow on the Parks Highway about 40 miles north of Anchorage and near Sterling on the Sterling Highway about 60 miles south of Alaska’s largest city.

Both fires were human caused and have displaced hundreds of residents.

A third fire, begun by lightning Sunday, threatened an Alaska Highway community. The fire has burned 500 acres on an island in the Tanana River island three miles northwest of the village of Dot Lake. Water-scooping aircraft, fire retardant tankers and helicopters with water buckets joined 94 firefighters on the ground Tuesday to keep the fire from jumping the river.

Much of Alaska is in the middle of a late-spring heat wave that followed record-breaking temperatures in May.

Temperatures reached the mid-80s in southcentral Alaska. Low humidity and a forecast of dry thunderstorms Alaska kept authorities on high alert.

The human-caused Sockeye Fire grew Tuesday but consumed no new structures around Willow. The fire started Sunday and has blackened 12 square miles along the Parks Highway, the main route between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Almost 300 people were working to contain the fire that has burned 25 homes and 10 to 20 other structures.

Willow is an unincorporated community of 2,000 spread along 20 miles of the Parks Highway. Roads lace the forest and lead to smatterings of cabins and year-round homes.

The Susitna River is a natural barrier west of the highway. Firefighters are using Alaska Railroad tracks as a firebreak on the east side of the highway.

Firefighters used the forest roads to protect structures and keep the fire out of the neighboring highway communities of Caswell Creek and Montana Creek to the north. The more populated towns of Houston and Big Lake are to the south.

“We don’t want the fire getting anywhere near those communities,” Mowry said.

The fire on the Kenai Peninsula near Sterling was reported Monday as a 1-acre grass fire off Card Street, which branches south off the Sterling Highway. By Tuesday, it had burned about 3 square miles south of Sterling. Six structures were destroyed, said state Division of Forestry spokesman Andy Alexandrou, but he had no details on whether they were homes or outbuildings.

Three tankers took to the air to drop retardant on the fire. Fire trucks from Central Emergency Services patrolled Funny River Road on the south side of the Kenai River to extinguish spot fires started by embers floating across the water.

“They were chasing these spots with a helicopter and a boat,” Mowry said.

Firefighters caught a break when winds shifted Monday night, pushing the fire east into wetlands of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

About 50 people worked on the fire Tuesday. About 100 more were preparing to join them.

The situation is the opposite of last year. The Funny River Fire in 2014 burned more than 300 square miles, mostly south of the Kenai River in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It threatened to jump the river to neighborhoods where the Card Street fire is now burning.

Alaska as of Tuesday had 43 active wild land fires but not all were staffed.

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