By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, July 10 (Reuters) - A federal land management agency said on Wednesday it had warned the U.S. Army against conducting an artillery exercise in Alaska that the military has acknowledged might have started a large wildfire near Fairbanks.
But an Army spokesman said it still remains unclear whether the barrage of live fire led directly to the blaze, since there was a delay of six days between an initial spark of flames tied to the Army's actions and when the fire dramatically expanded.
The so-called Stuart Creek 2 fire, which stands at 84,275 acres (34,105 hectares) and earlier this week forced the evacuation of about 600 people, flared up on June 25.
The Army's Fort Wainwright Garrison held its exercise on June 19.
The garrison issued a statement late on Tuesday informing residents of the affected Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley areas northeast of Fairbanks that damage claims will be taken from "anyone who believes they have suffered loss as a result of the Army's possible wrongdoing."
If it is found the Army was negligent and "the cause of damage, then there is a process in place by which individuals can submit claims for their damages," the statement said.
The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had cautioned the Army that the hot, dry weather made the artillery exercise highly risky, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.
"We recommended that they not hold the exercise. They did it anyway, and the fire happened," said Mel Slater, spokesman for the BLM's Alaska Fire Service.
The commander of the Fort Wainwright Garrison appeared to take responsibility for the fire when he spoke at a community meeting in Two Rivers late on Saturday.
Colonel Ron Johnson, responding to residents' complaints, said the Army had taken steps to prevent a wildfire but the exercise started one nonetheless.
"So it was monitored, it smoked up, they hit it again, and when the fire conditions changed and the weather changed, it flared up, and now we got what we got," Johnson said at the meeting in comments aired by the Alaska Public Radio Network.
Major Alan Brown, the Anchorage-based spokesman for the Army in Alaska, acknowledged artillery training was conducted against BLM recommendations, but said it was unclear that the exercise ignited the wildfire.
The case is complicated because the fire that started on the day of the artillery exercise might not have been the same fire that started spreading rapidly six days later, Brown said.
The Army and BLM assessed the initial fire for several days and "believed it was out" but flames flared up again on June 25, he said. "Therein lies the question: Is this the original fire, or was there some external factor that caused it?" he added.
The Stuart Creek 2 fire was 22 percent contained on Wednesday, officials said. An evacuation order issued on Sunday was lifted a day later and most residents returned to the area, said Michelle Weston, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Fire Service.
It is unclear if any structures were lost. An assessment was under way, but results were not available, Weston said.
Cooler temperatures and some rain have helped temper the wildfire, but forecasts suggest there will be more hot and dry weather in the coming days, Weston said. An evacuation watch - advising residents to be prepared to leave - remains in effect, she said. (Editing by Edith Honan, Bernard Orr)
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