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Hundreds of people, sled dogs evacuated to escape Alaska wildfire

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - About 600 people and numerous sled dogs were evacuated as a massive wildfire threatened homes in communities northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, state and federal fire management officials said on Monday.

The Stuart Creek 2 fire, whipped by strong winds, expanded about 25 percent over the weekend to more than 100 square miles (259 sq km) as of Monday morning, according to InciWeb, the inter-agency fire information website run by the U.S. Forest Service.

The flames, which were spreading to the north and northwest, threatened about 750 homes and about 150 other structures, and officials issued an evacuation order affecting about 600 residents on Sunday afternoon. Some of the homes are not occupied year-round.

As of Sunday evening, 200 to 300 people had informed authorities that they had left the area, fire information officer Rich Phelps said. But he said it was difficult to determine how many people had evacuated.

"You can't tell people they have to leave," Phelps said. "Some leave, and some don't."

A shelter was set up at an elementary school, and a few people had taken refuge there, he said.

Nearly 700 firefighters were working to try to control the blaze, which is the most serious of the more than 90 wildfires actively burning in Alaska, Phelps said. Firefighting teams include several crews from the Lower 48 states, he said.

It was unclear whether any structures had been lost to the Stuart Creek 2 fire, which officials said was ignited on June 19 by a military exercise. Heavy smoke was making it difficult for air crews to map the blaze accurately.

The affected area, with the unincorporated communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley, is home to several top-ranked sled-dog racers and their kennels.

Rick Swenson, a five-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, lives in Two Rivers, as does Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up in the past two Iditarod races.

Many of the mushers' dogs, along with horses and other domestic animals, have been taken to the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds in Fairbanks, Phelps said. "It was pretty crowded at the fairgrounds," he said.

Smoke from this and other wildfires has created hazardous conditions in interior Alaska.

Air quality was rated as "unhealthy" over the weekend in the Fairbanks suburb of North Pole, according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough, and poor visibility has hampered vehicle traffic on highways and drifted over Eielson Air Force Base and the Fairbanks International Airport.

Hot and dry weather for much of the summer has fueled a busy fire season this year in Alaska. More than 1 million acres had been burned in wildfires across the state as of Monday morning, officials reported. So far, 442 wildfires have burned in the state, including the 92 fires that were believed to be active as of Monday.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Dan Grebler)

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