Firefighters focus on protecting Chena Hot Springs Resort, homes as wildfire advances

Smoke rises at the end of a dirt trail in some rolling hills
The Munson Creek Fire as seen from a ridge behind Chena Hot Springs on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Matt Nunnelly/Alaska DNR-Division of Forestry)

Winds on Friday pushed a wildfire near Fairbanks past a control line and closer to the Chena Hot Springs Resort and and other outlying structures, according to the state Division of Forestry.

That forced firefighters to retreat from the advancing Munson Creek Fire. They’re now focused on protecting the resort, as well as nearby homes and cabins, said Tim Mowry, state forestry information officer.

The fire is estimated at 5,000 to 10,000 acres and burns two miles south of the hot springs.

“We didn’t feel safe having the firefighters on the ridge, so the firefighters are falling back and they’re focused now on setting up protection measures around structures at the hot springs and cabins and homes along Chena Hot Springs Road,” Mowry said. “That involves laying down hoses and pumps and setting up sprinklers and having them ready to turn on if the fire gets to that point.”

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Mowry emphasized that the Chena Hot Springs Resort is a very defensible site. The resort is roughly 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

“There’s a good water source at the hot springs,” he said. “The hot springs actually has some of their own firefighting equipment up there because they’re obviously not in the fire service area. We’re working with with hot spring’s owner Bernie Karl to try to get information to folks and to make sure that the resort is safe.”

As of 4 p.m. Friday, no evacuation order had been issued, and guests and staff remained on site at the resort.

Karl told The Associated Press that the resort didn’t evacuate in 2004 when it was surrounded by a wildfire, and he didn’t plan to do it now.

“This place is safer to defend than Fairbanks,” he said, underscoring there are two rivers on either side of them and a runway in the middle.

Karl expected the resort to have 210 guests by Friday night.

“We tell people to come out and enjoy the smoke and take a soak,” he told The AP.

Forestry officials, however, cautioned the resort and area residents to be on “set” alert, meaning they have items packed and are ready to leave immediately if needed.

Mowry said there’s some relief in the forecast from the hot, dry, windy conditions that have ballooned the size of Monson Creek fire over the past few days.

The fire was first reported June 18, and was started by lightning.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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