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Firefighters Look For Rain, Calm Air To Help Halt Timber Blaze

June 7, 1996

BIG LAKE, Alaska (AP) _ Calm and clammy air Friday helped fire crews fight a huge wildfire to a standstill on Friday, but a second blaze sprang up and spread rapidly in another forest 100 miles south.

About 1,200 firefighters were dumping water and hacking down trees and scrub growth to encircle the 65-square-mile fire in the Matanuska Valley 50 miles of Anchorage, which destroyed up to 300 houses and buildings and damaged many more.

State fire investigator Mark Barker said the fire, which blew up in every direction around the rural towns of Big Lake and Houston, acted ``a lot like a tornado: One house is there and the other isn’t.″

Some of the 700 people evacuated as the fire spread saw the devastation for the first time on Thursday.

The ruins of one house were coated with red fire retardant dumped from a tanker plane. A burned-out Ford truck sat in the driveway, its bumpers melted onto the ground.

Others found their houses still standing, but burglarized.

Becky Gowen said a window was pried open on her mother’s house at Big Lake Heights, and thieves cleaned out the home, taking everything from the television and microwave oven to toilet paper and dish soap.

Police said only a handful of burglaries were reported. National Guard troops were helping state and local police patrol the area.

With the larger fire in check, about 100 fresh reinforcements from California were diverted to the new blaze, which spread to 1,500 acres in 12 hours Friday in an unpopulated area of the Kenai Peninsula along the Gulf of Alaska.

But the focus remained on the earlier fire, which authorities believe was sparked by fireworks Monday. Bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment being used to cut fire breaks lined a highway, a hundred yards from a cluster of shops that sell fireworks.

Rising humidity, still air and forecasts of rain this weekend gave firefighters hope they could contain the it in a few days. The fire continued to smolder in hundreds of spots, though no buildings had burned in the last two days and a haze of smoke that stretched as far as Anchorage had cleared under sunny skies.

``I’d rather see it rain,″ said Jim Kilgore, who works at a gas station in nearby Wasilla, where displaced families are staying at a shelter in the high school. ``It’s supposed to, but we’ve heard that story before. When it comes down, I’ll believe it.″

The area has been dry all year, with light snowfall and spring rains running about half their average.

``It’s let everything get really parched,″ said Sam Albanese, a National Weather Service forecaster working with fire crews. ``It’s made for very extreme fire conditions.″

The dry timberlands have authorities worried they could be in for a long summer of forest fires. A 500-acre blaze also was burning near Fairbanks.

``It’s nature’s call,″ said Dave Liebersbach, who is heading the firefighting effort. ``All we can do is take the opportunity we have now to tie the fire up, because eventually nature’s going to come back and go after it again.″

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