Officials still assessing damage after Interior Alaska fire runs through subdivision

A dirt road through spruce forest with very active flames and smoke in the near distance
Fire burns in the Kobe Ag subdivision on Wednesday. (Eric Kiehn/Task Force Leader with Northwest Team)

Managers of the Clear Fire response aren’t saying much yet about structures destroyed or damaged by a wind-driven advance of the wildfire Wednesday evening.

The fire made a run in the Kobe Road area on Wednesday, prompting officials to urge any residents remaining to “leave now.”

The fire was sparked by lightning in late June and has grown to more than 55,000 acres. It’s burning near the Interior communities of Clear and Anderson, roughly 75 miles southwest of Fairbanks.

Duane Van Woert, Clear Fire management team operations chief, said wind on Wednesday drove a mile-wide swath of flames north along the fire’s eastern side.

“And eventually kinda overwhelmed the lines we had into the Kobe Ag area, and made about a three mile run,” he said.

The Kobe area has been under a “GO” evacuation notice since last week. An urgent update sent out late Wednesday told those who had remained to “TAKE YOUR FAMILY AND PETS AND LEAVE NOW.” Aircraft dropped water and retardant on the fast-moving section of fire, but Van Woert said firefighters had to pull back because of rapidly advancing flames.

During a community meeting Thursday night, incident commander Al Lawson was asked how many structures burned.

“We’d like to know that as well,” Lawson said. “The fire burned through there rapidly last night and we’re still evaluating the number of structures out there, and how we do that is we have a field observer who goes out, looks at the area that burned and GPS’s those locations and the degree of damage that’s out there. The last thing we want to do is give out false information, right?”

Some residents had not heeded the evacuation order, complicating work for firefighters, said Duane Van Woert, operations section chief for the fire.

Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker described the area as sparsely populated — “with folks who are strong minded, strong willed. It takes strength to reside and to make it in that area. It can be a difficult area, mainly for access.”

Those living in the city of Anderson, located about 80 miles southwest of Fairbanks, and Clear Space Force Station have been told to pack bags in case they need to evacuate.

Lawson said the burn area is dangerous.

“Its still hot,” said Lawson. “There’s still trees coming down, so we’re going to wait until its safe to put firefighters in there and then we’ll go out and evaluate what the fire area looks like, and how many of those structures were burned.”

Lawson did not provide a timeline for the assessment and release of information, but did emphasize that no one was killed or hurt during what he described as extreme fire behavior.

“At the end of the day for me, it’s getting everybody back into camp and making sure that folks are safe,” he said. “And we accomplished that.”

The same portion of the fire that advanced so violently late Wednesday was active again Thursday, according to fire behavior analyst Forrest Ownbey.

“South wind is just clearing out that air, feeding the fire and its helping it to grow,” he said.

Ownbey said conditions are forecast to continue warm and dry, but relative humidity is predicted to rise over the weekend, bringing increased chance of thunderstorms with erratic winds.

The Clear Fire is Alaska’s top priority incident with about 500 firefighters assigned to it. Air operations manager Dennis Morton said a Chinook helicopter is being brought in to increase water drop capacity.

“Should be here in two days and we’ll base that aircraft out of Nenana,” he said. “And that will come with a 3,000-gallon bucket, so that will really help out tremendously.”

The Clear Fire was sparked by lightning in late June and has burned more than 61,000 acres and is 8% contained. It’s one of more than 235 actively burning fires in the state. Fires have burned on more than 4,062 square miles this year, or more than 2 1/2 times the size of the state of Rhode Island.

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