Weather provides reprieve for firefighters battling Alaska blazes

Willow Fire Capt. Leo Lashock responds to an out of control wildfire burning near Willow, Alaska, in this picture courtesy of Mat-Su Borough taken June 14, 2015. REUTERS/Mat-Su Borough/Stefan Hinman/Handout

By Steve Quinn JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - Crews battling a pair of Alaska wildfires that have destroyed up to 100 structures this week received a slight weather reprieve on Wednesday that may help them contain the raging blazes, officials said. The fires have forced the evacuation of hundreds of people who remained unable to return home on Wednesday, and authorities have had to restrict traffic on a major highway connecting two of the state's largest cities. "The predicted wind issues from last night never came to pass, so we were able to dig in and make a lot of progress," Alaska Forest Division spokesman Pete Buist said. Crews have been working to contain the two fires since Monday while unseasonably high temperatures and unpredictable winds have helped the blazes spread, forestry officials said. The first fire ignited on Sunday near Willow, best known as the starting point for the Iditarod, Alaska’s famed sled dog race. It has destroyed up to 100 structures and spread to more than 7,500 acres (3,000 hectares). On Monday, a grass fire started in Sterling, on the Kenai Peninsula. It has forced people from nearly 200 homes and spread to about 2,000 acres (800 hectares). At least 10 homes have been damaged, borough officials said. Carol Vardeman, spokeswoman for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, said about 800 people have been either evacuated or urged to evacuate from the Willow fire. She said 400 crew members were on site to attack the fire. “They are working the perimeter. They are working inside-out. They are working outside-in,” Vardeman said. “But it’s a lot of work and unless we get a really good rain, this is going to go on for quite a while.” That is not likely to happen for at least the next week, said National Weather Service meteorologist Rebecca Duell. “There is a bit of a cooling trend, but it’s still going to be hot in those areas," Duell said of Willow and Sterling. “Dusty and erratic winds can ignite more fires.” She said about two-thirds of the state was under a red-flag alert, meaning weather conditions such as high temperatures, unpredictable winds and low humidity favor rapidly spreading fires. (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)

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