Railroad’s temporary closure puts 800 tourists on buses to Fairbanks
Anchorage, AK, USA — The fire burning south of Nenana grew to more than 15,000 acres Friday, as firefighters worked to keep flames from getting any closer to the town of about 600 people on the George Parks Highway, and the Alaska Railroad had to temporarily suspend train traffic between Fairbanks and Anderson.
Tour companies scrambled Friday afternoon to arrange bus transport for about 800 train passengers, moving them from Denali National Park and Preserve at Mile 235 of the Parks Highway to their destination of Fairbanks, 125 miles up the road, past Nenana.
The Parks Highway already has been closed at least twice since the smoky fire began Wednesday, but it remained open Friday afternoon, and the buses made it through. Officials cautioned that more winds were forecast over the next few days, and new closures were possible.
No one is known to have been injured by the fire, but it destroyed one house about four miles south of Nenana late Thursday night and a cabin somewhere to the north of that, said Jennifer Yuhas, a state Division of Forestry spokeswoman.
A river and rail transportation hub, Nenana continued to be shielded on the southeast by the natural barrier of a large bend in the Tanana River, and on the south by its municipal airport, Yuhas said.
The fire has reached within 1.5 miles of the airport, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.
About 300 firefighters on the ground and in the air were battling the blaze, which began near Mile 290 of the Parks when a property owner at Anderson dumped ashes from a fire on the ground, according to Yuhas. The unnamed person, who has been cited and is scheduled to be arraigned in Nenana on Thursday, had been using a burn barrel with a screen.
“They were doing everything you’re supposed to do,” Yuhas said. “They were fine until they dumped the ashes.” The dry ground caught fire, and wind did the rest, she said. It was unclear whether the person had a permit, said Yuhas.
Since Wednesday, the fire has been pushed in several directions by changeable winds that have caused “extreme fire behavior” and intense smoke, the Interagency Coordination Center said. The burned area was at least 10 miles long and a mile wide Friday.
The blaze, now being referred to as the Parks Highway fire, is Alaska’s No. 1 wildland fire in terms of the priority assigned it, according to Yuhas. Fire managers’ highest objective, she said, is “life and safety efforts and protecting homes and structures.”
The fire continued to threaten houses on both sides of the highway, and firefighters, assisted by the Red Cross and Alaska state troopers, evacuated residents from homes along a 14-mile stretch of the Parks on Thursday night, the Center said. The Nenana School became an evacuation center, it said.
The fire was not threatening Clear Air Force Station, the missile-early-warning installation west of the Parks and south of Anderson, according to a spokesman for Eielson Air Force Base southeast of Fairbanks.
The station’s own fire protection department was primed and ready not only to defend the installation but also to help state and federal firefighters battle the flames, while military personnel helped to shepherd motorists in convoys along the hazy highway, said 2nd Lt. Bryon McGarry.
Clear is one of 44 units of the Air Force’s 21st Space Wing that form a network to detect and warn authorities about ballistic-missile launches worldwide, said Capt. Amy Sufak, a Wing spokeswoman. The fire has caused no degradation to the station’s mission, Sufak said.
A southbound passenger train heading from Fairbanks to Denali National Park and then on to Anchorage passed the fire Friday morning, said railroad spokesman Tim Thompson. The tracks are west of the highway, and people, smelling and seeing smoke, also could see flames about 1,000 feet away, he said.
Railroad managers ordered a couple of bulldozers, two water trucks and a rail-based tanker holding 20,000 gallons of water to the scene, while crews fought to keep the flames from crossing the tracks, Thompson said.
But by early afternoon, the flames were burning on both sides of the tracks some four miles south of Nenana, and the railroad suspended traffic. The suspension affected a northbound passenger train that had left Anchorage Friday morning for Fairbanks, with a stop planned at Denali National Park to pick up hundreds of tourists who’d spent a day or two there.
The last time the railroad shut the rails due to a wildland fire was 10 years ago during the Big Lake fire, one of the most destructive in the state’s history, according to Thompson.
The railroad resumed travel through the burned area about 7:30 p.m., after inspectors confirmed that the fire caused no damage to the tracks, Thompson said. The tracks would stay open so long as the fire pattern — with flames moving generally eastward — held, he said.
The northbound train, meanwhile, was kept at Denali, Thompson said. The suspension affected 65 railroad passengers and more than 700 tourists who had been in Denali and planned to continue to Fairbanks on the rails as part of a package deal from either Holland-America or Princess Tours, he said.
A spokesman for Holland-America Line Westours said 392 of its clients were to have boarded the northbound train at Denali, but would now take buses for the two-hour ride to Fairbanks.
Those tourists actually were expected to arrive in Fairbanks ahead of schedule, said Holland-America official John Shively.
An official of Princess Tours refused to talk about the matter.
This morning, assuming the track near Nenana remains passable, tour passengers who would normally ride the train down from Fairbanks will be bused instead to Denali, according to Thompson. There they’ll board the held-over train for the ride to Anchorage.
Yuhas said officials planned to keep the Parks Highway open all weekend, but motorists nevertheless should prepare for delays of up to two hours.
Delays on the Parks already were occurring on occasion due to four road projects of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The projects are at various locations from Mile 204 at Broad Pass to Mile 325, north of Nenana, said Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the DOT’s Northern Region office.
The fire had not caused any suspensions of the road projects as of Friday afternoon, McCarthy said.