Recent hot, dry weather has reinvigorated part of the 54,050-acre Munson Creek Fire burning near Chena Hot Springs east of Fairbanks, prompting fire managers with the Alaska Division of Forestry to raise the evacuation alert level from “Ready” to “Set” for cabins and homes east of Mile 48 Chena Hot Springs Road effective immediately.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough Department of Emergency Operations sent out a text just after 10:30 a.m. Thursday regarding the heightened evacuation level. A ”Set” evacuation level means that any residents or visitors in the area should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
The heightened evacuation level is due to increased fire activity between Miles 52-54 of Chena Hot Springs Road, where the fire has crept to within one-quarter mile of some cabins and homes near Mile 53. The North Fork of the Chena River is between the fire and the structures but the proximity of the fire to the cabins and homes prompted fire managers to recommend raising the evacuation alert level.
The evacuation level was reduced from “Set” to “Ready” on July 26 after more than 1 inch of rain fell on the fire. The fire has continued to smolder for the past week and a half but picked up in intensity in the last few days with the record-setting heat wave that has baked the Central and Eastern Interior for the past five days.
The Alaska Division of Forestry will increase its presence in the area today by sending out three engines to patrol along the end of Chena Hot Springs Road between Miles 52-54, Fairbanks Area Forestry Fire Management Officer Gordon Amundson said. The Fairbanks #1 Type 2 Crew will be reinstalling pumps and sprinklers around cabins and homes that were removed following the rain 10 days ago. Hose lays that were installed weeks ago were left in place and just need to be plumbed to the sprinklers and pumps, he said.
Incident Commander Tony Peterson was on scene Wednesday and said the increased fire activity produced significant smoke that concerned some residents in the area.
“There were two smokey drainages between miles 52 and 54 that were putting up a lot of smoke,” said Peterson, who was heading out to the fire Thursday morning. “We had some northeast winds so the fire was pushing back against itself and creeping down the hillside.”
Given the fact the North Fork of the Chena River separates cabins and homes from the fire and the slow movement of the fire down the hill into a riparian area with mixed hardwoods, it’s not a major threat but Peterson said he understands the concerns of cabin and homeowners.
“We’re just going to let it back down to the river,” he said. “It’s going to put itself out if the rain doesn’t put it out first.”
Crews will run sprinklers today to wet down areas around cabins closest to the fire’s edge and engines will be monitoring the fire’s progress from the road.
“They’ll be exercising and testing the water handling systems (around homes and cabins),” Amundson said of the crew. “We’re going to let the fire keep coming down to the river and the riparian area and be ready to catch embers if they cross the river.”
Amundson described fire behavior in the area as “moderate” and emphasized that there are no cabins or homes on the fire side of the river. He also said cooler, wetter weather is forecast this weekend with a 50% chance of wetting rains, which would help calm fire behavior.
“The weather should be in our favor after today,” he said, noting that unseasonably hot temperatures in the mid 80s are expected again today before cooler weather moves in starting tomorrow.
Alaska State Parks facilities in the area, including the Angel Rocks Trail, will remain open for the time being, Northern Region Superintendent Ian Thomas said.
“We’re going to wait and see what happens in the next couple of days,” he said, referring to the predicted weather change. “We don’t want to close things down if we don’t have to.”
The lightning-caused Munson Creek Fire has been burning for nearly six weeks since it was discovered on June 18 about 5 miles south of Chena Hot Springs. Because the fire was located in a Limited protection area with no values immediately threatened, no suppression action was taken and the fire was allowed to function in its normal ecological role.
However, the fire picked up in intensity two weeks after it was discovered and pushed toward Chena Hot Springs Resort and cabins and homes at the end of Chena Hot Springs Road, coming within 100 yards of the resort at one point. Fire crews were brought in to protect the resort and set up hose, pumps and sprinklers around cabins and homes in the area if the fire threatened them.