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Crews Fight Wildfire, Forcing Closure of Denali National Park

As of Monday, vehicles were being turned around at the park’s only entry along the Parks Highway, park tour and transit buses were canceled, and public facilities including the visitor center were closed.

The Riley fire burns June 30, 2024, in this view from the Nenana River Canyon business area near the Denali National Park entrance. (NPS Photo/TNS)
(TNS) - A wildfire that has closed Denali National Park at the start of a busy holiday week was the top priority Monday morning for Alaska’s fire managers, taking advantage of cooler weather that slowed the blaze’s growth.

The fire’s rapid start near the park’s entrance Sunday afternoon prompted officials to close it to day-use visitors as authorities called for evacuations from campgrounds and employee housing. Officials say the fire comes during the park’s busiest time of year, when Denali generally sees 3,000 to 4,000 visitors daily.

As of Monday, vehicles were being turned around at the park’s only entry along the Parks Highway, park tour and transit buses were canceled, and public facilities including the visitor center were closed. Campgrounds and backcountry units west of park headquarters remained open to visitors with existing reservations who were already at their campsites, but no additional campers were allowed to enter the park, park officials said in a statement Monday.

About 150 National Park Service employees housed in a facility near the fire were evacuated Sunday, said park spokesperson Paul Ollig. An evacuation center was established in Healy. About 50 people sheltered overnight at Tri Valley High School in Healy, according to an update from state disaster managers.

This is the first time in 100 years that fire has closed the park’s entry, Ollig said: In early July 1924 a major wildfire erupted near the entrance, destroying some facilities and closing park operations.

“We were actually planning on doing social media posts and interpretive programs commemorating the 100th anniversary of that fire this summer, and wouldn’t you know it — we have another fire in that area almost exactly to the day, 100 years later,” he said.

By Monday morning, what officials are calling the Riley Fire was estimated at 350 acres, said Beth Ipsen, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service. No structures were immediately threatened, officials said.

The fire didn’t grow much overnight and cloudy, cooler weather with a possibility of rain was expected on Monday, which could help moderate activity, Ipsen said.

It wasn’t immediately clear what started the fire, which was first reported west of the Alaska Railroad in an area of black spruce, she said. “This is a huge impact to those businesses today, the local economy and of course tourists that are coming to Alaska for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Denali National Park.”

Nearly 130 Golden Valley Electric Association members remained without power Monday in the Glitter Gulch area, the utility said in a social media update. The area is a popular destination for visitors drawn to the shops, restaurants and lodging. The fire had moved close to the utility’s electric equipment and power would remain off throughout the day, the utility said.

Firefighters were working to keep the fire burning toward the northwest on Monday as they tried to push it toward a brushy ridge to get it out of black spruce, Ipsen said. The brush was expected to slow the fire’s growth along with rocky, alpine terrain on the ridge, she said.

Additional fire crews were arriving in Alaska on Monday and Ipsen said at least two of the four crews were slated to respond to the Riley Fire.

Warm and dry conditions throughout portions of the state sparked new fires over the weekend or caused existing fires to expand. By Monday, nearly 430,000 acres had burned statewide in more than 300 separate fires, according to an updated Alaska Interagency Coordination Center Situation Report.


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