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Tuesday 10 December 2019

Residents flee as wildfire grow

People have been evacuated as a wildfire in Alaska continues to rage
People have been evacuated as a wildfire in Alaska continues to rage

A massive wildfire fed by wind in Alaska's Kenai Peninsula is continuing to explode in size, leading to 1,000 buildings being evacuated.

The number of people told to flee their homes was not clear, said Michelle Weston of the Alaska Interagency Management Team, which includes the state Division of Forestry and national and local officials.

She said the fire recently covered nearly 218 square miles and had grown significantly as it burned in the 1.9 million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, south of Anchorage.

The Funny River Fire is named after a nearby road where residents were being evacuated. Alaska State Troopers are going door to door, evacuating an area of mostly second homes and populated by many pensioners.

No injuries have been reported and it was unclear if any buildings were damaged.

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

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

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, Ms Weston said.

She said spot fires jumped over the Kenai River close to the community of Sterling and officials were evaluating the changing conditions to see if the flames threatened structures there.

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

Brenda Ahlberg, spokeswoman for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said a Red Cross shelter was being set up for evacuees.

The Alaska Department Natural Resources warned residents of Anchorage, the state's largest city, to expect to see considerable smoke from this and another wildfire.

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.

Governor Sean Parnell flew over the fire, before the wind-driven expansion and praised the multi-agency effort.

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

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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