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Evacuations of 1,000 structures ordered as Alaska wildfire grows

alaskafire640.jpg

May 25, 2014: Smoke from a wildfire rises over Alaska's Kenai Peninsula (Alaska Division of Forestry)

A wildfire on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage expanded in size Sunday, leading officials to issue a mandatory evacuation order for 1,000 structures.

The number of people told to flee their homes isn't clear, said Michelle Weston, spokeswoman with the Alaska Interagency Management Team, which includes the state Division of Forestry and federal and local officials.

Officials said that as of 4 p.m. Alaska time, the fire covered nearly 243 square miles and may continue to grow as it burns in the 1.9 million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

The Funny River Fire is named after a nearby road where all residents were being evacuated. She says Alaska State Troopers were going door to door, evacuating an area that's mostly second homes and is home to many retirees.

She says no injuries were reported, and it's unclear if any buildings were damaged.

She said erratic fire behavior driven by high winds and extremely dry conditions allowed the flames to grow.

Earlier Sunday, the fire spanned 193 square miles and was 20 percent contained.

For size comparison, the Funny River Fire was larger than Seattle (143 square miles) but smaller than Anchorage (1,961 square miles).

The size of the blaze is not unusual for Alaska but the state does not usually see such large fires this early in the season, Weston said.

Crews were attacking the fire by air, with two Alaska Air National Guard helicopters and five other helicopters involved, she said.

Weston said spot fires jumped over the Kenai River close to the community of Sterling. Brenda Ahlberg, spokeswoman for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said an evacuation advisory was put in place in the area later Sunday for people to prepare to flee.

Ahlberg said a Red Cross shelter was being set up for evacuees.

Dennis Downs, 64, told the Anchorage Daily News that he and his wife, Kelly, cleared dead brush away from his mother-in-law's home before they had to evacuate.

"There's a good possibility the house will burn," Downs told the newspaper of the home his mother-in-law has lived in for 40 years.

The Funny River Fire is the most active of several large wildfires burning in Alaska. Firefighters have been flown in from Oregon, Montana and Canada to help Alaskan crews.

Gov. Sean Parnell flew over the fire midday Sunday, before the wind-driven expansion. He praised the multiagency effort -- including state, local and federal officials.

Wildfires in Alaska's remote areas are not unusual during the summer months, with an average of a million acres burned each fire season, Weston said.

The state is experiencing unusually dry conditions because of unseasonably warm spring temperatures. High wind is also a challenge for crews.

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 as the Kenai National Moose Range and was aimed at moose protection. Wildlife viewing, fishing, camping and hiking attract visitors from around the world.

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