A fire fanned by high winds swept into a Palmer subdivision Thursday afternoon, threatening about a dozen homes and causing authorities to evacuate many more.
Firefighters battled the Cedar Hills subdivision blaze from about 2 p.m. into the night, as evacuees waited to return home.
Palmer city officials said about 8 p.m. police were allowing residents back into their houses and issued a warning that some could still expect to see "glowing embers and sparks."
The city said fire crews would be in the area through the night monitoring the remnants of what had been a rare winter wildfire.
The flames erupted when a pickup towing a trailer crashed and flipped on Palmer-Fishhook Road near the Glenn Highway about 1:50 p.m., an Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman said.
Strong winds gusting to 50 mph or more pushed the fire south into brush and dry grass, and it had spread into nearby neighborhoods by 2:15 p.m., said Dennis Brodigan, emergency services director for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
"Up at that intersection, there's actually a golf course up there and it's an open field where the wind just rips through there," Brodigan said. "With the lack of snow on the ground, it's very dry and burns very readily."
The fire almost reached three or four houses in the Cedar Hills subdivision and another eight to the west in the Wickersham Circle area, borough officials said. Late Thursday, Palmer officials said on the city's website that no homes had burned. One firefighter was reportedly injured earlier.
Troopers closed the Glenn Highway for a time and it was reopened before 5 p.m.
Firefighters and troopers evacuated nearby homes. Palmer officials said they had set up an evacuation shelter at the Palmer Senior Center. Students on school buses bound for the affected neighborhoods turned around and parents were asked to pick up their children at school.
Dozens of firefighters from Palmer and Butte attacked the flames. More personnel and equipment from Anchorage and Chugiak were called in to help, Brodigan said. A total of 16 fire vehicles, not counting the Anchorage units, were in use during the fire's early stages, he said.
One resident, Marshall Carter, said he had to flee his house on Williwaw Drive. At first, Carter said, he thought the smoke was simply windblown dust obscuring the view outside his window. Then firefighters came through the neighborhood yelling for everyone to leave, he said.
"We started grabbing our animals. We have four dogs, a bird and a cat. We had to wrangle all of them up," Carter said. "We had firefighters banging on both of our doors telling us to get out. And we rushed to grab passports, birth certificates, a set of warm clothes, to get out quick."
As Carter watched from across the street, the flames came close to neighborhood houses but had not caught any of them on fire, he said. A shed burned, causing propane tanks inside to explode, Carter said.
"That was a little exciting. Big balls of fire," he said.
About 4 p.m., Carter said, it looked like firefighters had the blaze under control in his neighborhood.
In a posting on the City of Palmer's website about 8 p.m., city officials said residents were allowed back in, but warned that evacuees returning home might still see burning embers.
"Please only call 911 if your home or someone else's is in imminent danger," the city said. "Firefighters will be on scene throughout the night."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.