Nearly 1,000 people had been ordered out of their homes and a prison farm was evacuated Wednesday as a forest fire swarmed through a sparse community of homes built on wooded lots carved out of the wilderness.
Fire officials waited on reinforcements from the Lower 48 states, and expected no rain before Sunday at the earliest.
The fire tripled in size from dawn to afternoon, burning about 37,000 acres - 56 square miles - and at least 150 homes since the weekend.
Investigators suspect it might have been caused by fireworks, said State Fire Marshal Craig Goodrich. There have been several suspicious fires in the area, but officials suspect people may be using the forest fire as a pretext to burn their homes or property for insurance or other reasons, he said.
In spite of the state police evacuation orders, some residents stayed behind to try to save their property.
Martin Buser, two-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, ferried as many as 80 dogs to the safety of an island in the middle of Big Lake on Tuesday, then returned to his home to beat back the flames, his wife, Kathy Buser, said Wednesday.
As many as one-third of the homes in the Big Lake area 60 miles north of Anchorage were damaged or destroyed.
The community, popular with dog mushers, is a mixture of more than 2,000 permanent homes, weekend cabins and trailers set back from dirt roads on large lots.
Snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks fill driveways. Residents commute to jobs in Anchorage or work at businesses that dot the Parks Highway between Fairbanks and Anchorage.
It’s Alaska’s fastest-growing area, attracting homesteaders and refugees from Anchorage’s urban setting.
Early Wednesday, the state Department of Corrections evacuated the 74 inmates of the Point McKenzie farm, a minimum security work farm located in the path of the fire.
Some 1,000 residents had been ordered out of the area over the past couple of days.
On the Alaska Railroad, popular with tourists, southbound trains out of Fairbanks were halted because the fire burned right up to the tracks, a railroad spokeswoman said. Passengers were being bused to Anchorage and freight traffic was on hold.
The fire was burning south through dense black spruce and birch, pushed by a steady 15 mph breeze with gusts to 25 mph.
Fire commander Dave Liebersbach conceded Wednesday that more homes might be lost around Big Lake.
And he said that if the fire jumps eastward across the Parks Highway, it could threaten Wasilla, a town of 4,800. On Wednesday, the fire spread east and south.
Smoke drifted over Anchorage, prompting health officials there to issue an air quality alert.
Liebersbach was expecting as many as 1,000 more firefighters, many from the Lower 48 states, but said that even with every available firefighter on the scene, he still wouldn’t be able to get the blaze under control until the wind shifts or rain falls.