Alaska wildfires destroy dozens of homes, menace highway

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Massive Wildfires Fueled by Dry Weather in Alaska

Two fast-spreading Alaska wildfires have forced a series of evacuations, destroyed up to 45 homes and forced authorities to restrict traffic on a major highway connecting two of the state's largest cities, state officials said on Monday.

As many as 200 firefighters have been battling a 6,500-acre fire about 40 miles (64 km) north of Anchorage since Sunday afternoon.

About 137 miles (220km) south of Anchorage, crews are fighting a much smaller, but equally dangerous blaze that threatens nearly 200 homes.

Additional specially trained firefighting teams from the lower 48 states and Canada were scheduled to arrive on Monday night and begin assisting on Tuesday, Alaska Forestry Division spokesman Sam Harrel said. People have started to take to social media to express their concern for the residents of Alaska.

Crews have been battling the fires on the ground and from the air, with help from the three Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, according to state reports.

Harrel said the larger fire was ignited by human activity but the specific cause is being investigated. Dry and warm weather accelerated the blaze, he said.

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Alaska wildfires destroy dozens of homes, menace highway
The fire near #Sterling, AK has destroyed at least 6 structures and displaced hundreds of residents as of Monday evening. We'll provide up to date info all night and into the morning on KTVA.com. Keep others informed of the #wildfires by tagging them in the comments. Photo by @jasonsear. #cardstreetfire #ktva #alaska #sterlingfire #kenai
Northbound traffic is backed up on the Parks Highway near Willow, Alaska, on Monday, June 15, 2015, as state troopers allow southbound traffic to move through a wildfire area. The wildfire north of Anchorage shut down a key highway and forced the evacuation of 1,700 structures after it mushroomed in size from just two acres Sunday afternoon to more than 10 square miles by early Monday, officials said. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
A State Division of Forestry air tanker works the Sockeye fire north of Kashwitna Lake on Sunday, June 14, 2015, near Willow, Alaska. The wildfire north of Anchorage shut down a key highway and forced the evacuation of about 1,700 structures after it mushroomed in size. (Bill Roth /Alaska Dispatch News via AP) 
Southbound traffic, on the left, is allowed to move on the Parks Highway near Willow, Alaska, Monday, June 15, 2015, while northbound drivers wait their turn to be escorted through an active wildfire area. 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. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Spent the afternoon in a helicopter. #Alaska is on fire and there's only sun and hot weather in our forecast. I don't pray, but I'll be asking any God who'll listen for rain. 🔥💦 you can read more about the fires at KTVA.com. #Alaska #wildfire #Kenai #sterlingfire
Steve Charles sits alongside his sled dog, Bridger, at an American Red Cross evacuation center in Houston, Alaska, on Monday, June 15, 2015. Many mushers had to evacuate not only themselves or but their dogs after a fast-spreading wildfire sprang up near Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
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It started on Sunday afternoon near Willow, where the Iditarod, Alaska's famed sled-dog race, typically kicks off.

It initially covered about two acres, but within 11 hours had engulfed 6,500 acres, according to the forestry division.

Harrel said flames quickly jumped from one 30- to 40-foot spruce tree to the next, forcing a temporary closure of the Parks Highway, which links Anchorage in the state's south central region to Fairbanks in Alaska's eastern interior.

Residents along a 22-mile (35 km) stretch have been evacuated. The highway remains subject to intermittent closures and remained closed Monday night, Harrel said.

Governor Bill Walker had surveyed the area by air and issued a disaster declaration for the affected area.

By Monday morning, Harrel said, about 25 primary homes had been destroyed and as many as 20 secondary homes were also lost.

There are about 170 residential structures in the evacuation area, according to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. These include year-round residences and seasonal cabins, said borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan.

The borough also reported more than 200 people checking into evacuation centers, including residents and tourists, Sullivan said.

A second blaze, a 640-acre grass fire in the town of Sterling, began in the early afternoon, quickly destroying six structures and threatening 200 homes, Harrel said.

(Editing by Sandra Maler and Clarence Fernandez)

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