Mushers stand together as Alaska wildfire rages

2015-06-16 16:17

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Houston - An Alaska wildfire that has mushroomed in size was prompting help on Monday from people offering their homes to scores of displaced residents and their animals.

The fire north of Anchorage has led to the voluntary evacuation of up to 1 700 structures and has struck the heart of sled dog country, including 15 or so mushers who call Willow home.

About 500 dogs have been rescued, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member Vern Halter, a former Iditarod musher.

About 200 of those dogs ended up with four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser at his kennels in Big Lake about 30km from the fire. He also was taking in displaced residents, including veteran Iditarod musher DeeDee Jonrowe, who lost her home.

"Everybody's relieved that their dogs are safe and here, but the people that have lost their homes, they are dejected," Buser said on Monday afternoon in a phone interview. "And people that their homes got spared are elated."

On Sunday, when the fire began raging, the word went out that dogs needed rescuing, said Steve Charles, a member of the Willow Dog Mushers' Association. People went out with dog boxes on the backs of their trucks to help rescue hundreds of dogs, according to Charles, who spent the day doing that. When he returned to his home south of Willow, the fire began threatening his neighbourhood.

"I didn't realise I would have to be evacuating myself," he said at the American Red Cross evacuation cenre at Houston Middle School. His own dogs were along a chain line attached to a fence. Charles said he's heard from neighbours that his house was spared.

On Monday, Governor Bill Walker took an aerial tour of the fire, which has burned at least 25 homes and up to 20 other structures including sheds and outhouses. Walker later said he accepted the Matanuska-Susitna Borough's request for state disaster declaration for the affected area.

Fire information spokesman Tim Mowry said 210 residents signed in at evacuation centres in Houston and near Talkeetna. Officials said on Monday afternoon that the fire was zero percent contained, with the weather expected to continue to be warm and dry. One firefighter has been treated for heat exhaustion.

Residents with properties away from the fire have been taking to Facebook on a site dedicated to the fire to offer their homes and properties to displaced people.

The blaze was reported at just 0.8ha on Sunday afternoon and had burned through more than 26km² by early on Monday, officials said. It chewed through forest and brush around Willow, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough about 64km from Anchorage.

Tankers have unloaded retardant, and a helicopter dropped loads of water as more aircraft planned to join the fight. Nearly 200 personnel were battling the blaze and more were expected.

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