Zaz Hollander

WILLOW -- Burned-out Willow residents got more sobering news Tuesday: The Sockeye wildfire has destroyed 55 homes, more than twice an early estimate that surfaced last week.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough released the new information as part of a damage assessment linked to getting help for fire victims. At least 10 of the homes lost belong to dog mushers in what’s considered Alaska’s sled dog stronghold.

Permanent Willow residents who lost their homes are looking at a tight timeline. They have just months to rebuild before temperatures plummet below freezing...

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- As a wildfire burned around Willow last week, Alaska State Troopers and even a volunteer group of former military members and law enforcement officers made the rounds to stave off crime.

The efforts seem to have paid off, with just a handful of official reports of criminal activity surfacing so far from within the fire area.

Among them was a report Sunday that Alaska State Troopers had cited an unruly 50-year-old man who refused to let fire crews across his property even as flames marched through dry trees and duff nearby. Scott Leitner was blocking access to land in the heart of the fire zone, off Mile 74 of the Parks Highway, troopers said...

Zaz Hollander

WILLOW -- Friday was the first day some of the 800 people displaced by the Sockeye wildfire were officially allowed to go home as officials reduced the evacuation zone, with plans to remove it Saturday.

The fire destroyed 26 houses. Some people have no home to return to.

Justin High was putting a roof on his new house Sunday when he saw smoke billowing to the north. In December, High and his wife, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finisher Jaimee High, lost the home Justin had built on Serenity Drive to a fire. Jaimee narrowly escaped fast-moving flames to rescue a few house dogs.

The Highs were rebuilding with a target date: late January 2016, when their first baby is due...

Zaz Hollander

WILLOW -- Even as people living on the perimeter of the destructive wildfire in the Willow area got the official OK to return home Friday, crews braced for the first wind shift since the fire started Sunday.

The Sockeye wildfire in the Susitna Valley has destroyed 26 homes, burned across 132 properties and displaced 800 people in the town of about 2,100 that once harbored dreams of being Alaska's capital.

Strong north winds drove the fire south after it began Sunday north of Willow. It swelled to burn across more than 6,500 acres by that night. Then the fire calmed as winds mellowed and hundreds of firefighters fanned out across the hot zone. As of Friday afternoon, the fire was holding steady at about 7,066 acres...

Zaz Hollander

WILLOW -- Cecily Boeve urged the spooked sled dog past the wreckage of Leo Lashock’s home Thursday morning.

Lashock is a captain with the Willow Fire Department and a recreational dog musher. The house he lives in burned down Sunday while he was fighting the Sockeye wildfire as it rapidly spread in the Susitna Valley.

The Boeves, his next-door neighbors, evacuated from the fire but took care of Lashock's team until Thursday.

Then they brought 17 dogs home.

“I know, I know,” the 20-year-old Boeve crooned as she guided the slender husky past the crumpled metal roof, the blackened mattress spring, the stink of char and ruin. “This is scary. This isn’t home, is it?”...

Zaz Hollander
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WILLOW -- Cecily Boeve urged the spooked sled dog past the wreckage of Leo Lashock’s home Thursday morning...

Zaz Hollander

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough announced Thursday the first definitive count of houses destroyed in Willow’s Sockeye wildfire since the blaze erupted Sunday.

Twenty-six homes have been lost in the Sockeye fire. A borough damage assessment found 132 properties that were involved in the fire, borough public affairs director Patty Sullivan said in an email. It wasn’t clear if all 132 held structures.

Those who had homes burned in the fire can return to their property between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. Friday, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. The announcement came a day after fire officers warned residents it was too soon to go home...

Laurel Andrews,Zaz Hollander,Tegan Hanlon

WILLOW -- It’s too soon to go home, officials commanding the Sockeye wildfire response warned a somber crowd of 275 people at a community meeting at Houston Middle School on Wednesday.

The Sockeye fire, holding at about 12 square miles, didn’t grow at all Wednesday and officials expressed cautious optimism for future containment.

But even though 800 displaced residents are eager to get home, officials didn’t let up on a voluntary evacuation zone that covers about 15 miles along the Parks Highway -- at least not yet.

Commanders at Wednesday night’s community meeting said people who go home now run the risk of hurting themselves and getting in the way of 620 firefighters battling the blaze by Thursday...

Zaz Hollander

WILLOW -- Constance Walz stopped to watch a firefighting helicopter as she moved wood away from the converted bus she shares with her seven-toed cat.

Walz is part of a much larger brigade of Willow residents staying put instead of evacuating from the Sockeye fire, an uncontrolled wildland conflagration that’s so far destroyed 50 to 100 structures and burned across more than 7,500 acres since Sunday.

“This is our home,” she said Tuesday, standing in her driveway wearing a sleeveless blouse and open-toed sandals. “Until it’s in my backyard and that rubber is melting on my truck I’m not going anywhere. We’ve got to protect the neighborhood. Who else is going to?”...

Zaz Hollander

WILLOW -- Neighbors say people at the property where the Sockeye wildfire started Sunday were using fireworks the night before and then left after flames grew out of control, burning through more than 7,500 acres and destroying 50 to 100 buildings with poor firefighting weather ahead.

On Tuesday morning, an Alaska State Trooper and state fire marshal were at the property where the fire appeared to have started, in the area of West Sockeye Avenue near Mile 77 of the Parks Highway.

Asked about reports from neighbors, the fire incident commander said the cause of the fire remains under investigation and has not been determined. But it’s considered human-caused, because there was no lightning striking around Willow Sunday on a 80-degree-plus sunny day...

Zaz Hollander