The 54,000-acre Munson Creek Fire east of Fairbanks near Chena Hot Springs has assumed the title of Alaska’s largest wildfire this season but heavy rainfall over the weekend has kept it from getting much bigger.
The reduced fire activity due to the rain prompted fire managers with the Alaska Division of Forestry to recommend reducing the evacuation level for homes and cabins along the end of Chena Hot Springs Road from a “Set” to a “Ready” effective immediately. The Fairbanks North Star Borough announced the reduced evacuation status at 2 p.m. Monday.
In addition, Alaska State Parks has reopened the Hunt Memorial public-use cabin at Mile 42.3 Chena Hot Springs Road and will be opening Red Squirrel Campground and Picnic Area (Mile 43) and Mile 45.5 Pond on Tuesday morning. The Angel Rocks and Chena Dome trails and trailheads remain closed due to firefighting personnel working in the area. They will be assessed daily for reopening based on fire activity and weather.
The Munson Creek Fire’s size increased from 50,000 to 54,000 acres following a reconnaissance flight on Friday to map the perimeter, overtaking the 50,859-acre Dry Creek Fire south of Manley Hot Springs as the biggest wildfire in Alaska this season. That reconnaissance flight was followed by heavy rain that dumped almost 1 ½ inches of rain at Fairbanks International Airport Friday night and Saturday. It was the first measurable rainfall at the airport in two weeks.
The rain definitely helped mellow fire behavior based on a reconnaissance flight on Sunday, Incident Commander Ernest Prax with the Alaska Division of Forestry said.
“The rain definitely did knock it down,” he said early Monday afternoon. “We’ll see if stays that way or if it just needs time to dry out before it picks up again.”
Sunday’s aerial reconnaissance revealed “just a few light smokes’ in the area of Bear Paw Butte about 1 mile east of Chena Hot Springs Road near Mile 53, Prax said. That area remains the primary point of concern given the proximity fo the fire to dozens of cabins and homes along the road but the fire has been stalled in a creek drainage in that area for several days without showing any aggressive movement toward the road.
There was also some heat detected in some berms around a mining camp on Ottertail Creek along the Middle Fork Chena River that firefighters have been working to protect. Firefighters flew into the camp last week to turn on pumps and sprinklers that had been set up around the camp after the fire backed down to within 100 yards of the camp. A helicopter was also used to dump water around the camp. Firefighters planned to run the sprinklers again today to wet down the area around the camp. At last report, there was no damage to any structures or equipment at the camp.
There was no smoke observed along Monument Creek east of Chena Hot Springs where the fire had been fairly active a week ago, nor was there any smoke seen on the eastern perimeter, another area where the fire had continued to burn.
Prax said he hiked up the Ridge Trail behind Chena Hot Springs on Sunday and there was some light smoke but it was primarily interior pockets of unburned fuel being consumed inside the perimeter of the fire.
As of Monday morning, there were still 36 personnel assigned to the fire, including the 20-man White Mountain Crew. Over the weekend, firefighters did remove hose and sprinklers that had previously been set up at Chena Hot Springs Resort and at cabins and homes down to Mile 55 of Chena Hot Springs Road. Today, firefighters will pull hose and sprinklers that were set up around cabins from milepost 52 and farther west. Hose and sprinklers that had been set up at cabins and homes between mileposts 52-55 will remain in place.
The lightning-caused Munson Creek Fire was discovered on June 18 in a Limited protection area about 5 miles south of Chena Hot Springs. Given its location, the fire was allowed to function in its natural ecological role. Rather than actively trying to suppress the fire, fire managers have used a point protection strategy to protect Chena Hot Springs Resort, cabins and homes along the end of Chena Hot Springs Road and mining camps and cabins on the Middle Fork Chena River.