Butte wildfire started by escaped campfire is contained

Zaz Hollander

Update, 8:45 a.m. Friday:

State forestry officials say an escaped campfire off the Plumley-Maud Trail started the 21-acre McRoberts Creek fire across the Matanuska River from Palmer. The fire, first reported around 10 p.m. Wednesday, was 100 percent contained by crews Thursday night.

A total of 54 state and Mat-Su Borough firefighters remained on the fire Friday morning, focusing on areas where flames continue to smolder, a forestry spokeswoman said.  

The investigation into the campfire continues.


BUTTE -- Unseasonably warm, dry weather in a large section of the state set the stage for a roughly 20-acre wildfire near Palmer and kept authorities across Southcentral and Interior Alaska busy putting out backyard fires despite ongoing warnings against open burning.

Reports came in Thursday of small grass fires, escaped campfires, or unattended burns in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, on the Kenai Peninsula and around Fairbanks, though none of those grew larger than a quarter acre. The Clearwater Lodge in Delta Junction burned to the ground early Thursday morning but no wildfire was involved, and the flames that destroyed that iconic structure didn't spread to surrounding brush, forestry officials say.

About 50 firefighters from state hotshot crews hacked brush and laid out hose lines Thursday to contain the still-smoldering 21-acre McRoberts Creek fire near Jim Creek, authorities say.

Reported just before 11 p.m. Wednesday, the fire started off the Plumley-Maud Trail, a popular four-wheeling destination. It got within about three-quarters of a mile of homes but hasn't threatened any structures, Palmer-based state fire management officer Norm McDonald said.

By 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the fire was 75 percent contained, said Sarah Saarloos, an information officer for the state Division of Forestry.

The fire, burning off the Maud Road extension toward Jim Lake, was described by state Division of Forestry fire officials as "human-caused" but under investigation. Generally, forestry uses that designation for any fires not sparked by lightning. No additional information was immediately available.

A helicopter dumped water and ferried supplies to the area. Crews traveled via six-wheelers. State forestry firefighters and Mat-Su responders from Butte also worked the fire.

Flames visible from Palmer to Butte alarmed area residents Wednesday night as fire torched through dry grass and black spruce, raising a thick white column of smoke that drifted into homes miles away.

The first 911 call reporting the blaze came from a man in a house on East Plumley Road.

"It was called in as 'a fire up by Mud Lake moving west. I can see flames up above the treetops,'" said Clint Vardeman, the Mat-Su Borough's deputy emergency services director, reading from emergency dispatch logs.

The 22-person Pioneer Peak hotshot crew, based in Palmer, ran hoses from a nearby creek to the fire and spent the night clearing brush and trees in the area around the blaze to slow its progress, McDonald said. The Gannett Glacier hotshot crew joined them after coming in from McGrath Thursday afternoon.

It was "a real bonus" to get the Pioneer Peak crew out fast Wednesday night, given the fire's fast-moving start, Saarloos said. It started at just two or three acres before spreading to just over 20, according to initial reports.

Forestry offices in Palmer got numerous calls from worried residents Wednesday night, McDonald said. "There's definitely a lot of concern, which with the dry conditions is definitely understandable."

Conditions have been so dry that forestry officials previously banned burn permits for the area and many others around the state.

The National Weather Service issued "red flag" warnings for extreme fire danger due to low humidity or windy conditions for the Susitna Valley, Copper River Basin, western Prince William Sound and much of the Interior through Friday night.

Warm temperatures of upper 60s to mid-70s and low humidity remain in the forecast with winds increasing on Friday, forecasters say. No rain is expected in the Anchorage or Mat-Su areas until Sunday, and that may only be scattered showers. Some fog is possible in Anchorage Friday morning.

Not all residents are aware of the fire danger, apparently.

State forestry and crews from the Mat-Su Borough's West Lakes Fire Department extinguished a quarter-acre grass fire in a field at the end of a Meadow Lakes road.

About an hour later, another call came: Somebody's neighbor was burning stumps, using diesel to ignite them.

"We're running crazy with all the people deciding they want to do their burn barrels today," said Dennis Brodigan, the borough's emergency services director.

As of Thursday, state forestry officials said they had been to 106 fires on just over 174 acres in Alaska. Human-related activity was the top cause. Reports compiled by the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center included an errant campfire in Homer and a small grassfire at a Fairbanks shooting range.

A burn suspension remains in effect until further notice for Anchorage, the Mat-Su and many areas from Bristol Bay to Fairbanks. This suspension includes burn barrels and all open burning other than camping or cooking fires.

For more information on burn permits statewide, go to forestry.alaska.gov/burn/index.cfm and click on "Are conditions OK to burn today?"

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.



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