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McHugh wildfire caused by unextinguished campfire, officials say

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: August 31, 2016
  • Published July 28, 2016

An Alaska Railroad passenger train passes smoldering slopes near Beluga Point as the McHugh wildfire burns on Wednesday, July 20, 2016, along Turnagain Arm. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Alaska Division of Forestry said Thursday that an unextinguished campfire caused the McHugh fire, which scorched hundreds of acres of parkland south of Anchorage for nearly a week until rains helped stop its spread.

The wildfire began July 19 in Chugach State Park, adjacent to the Seward Highway and above a popular trailhead.

"The point of origin of the escaped fire was north of the McHugh Creek parking lot, off the McHugh trail system and deep in a ravine," according to DOF.

Officials said the fire was started in an area not commonly used by hikers, and a protective ring around the campfire was never established.

Currently, there are no leads about who caused the fire, said fire management officer Norm McDonald.

"We don't have any additional information at this time other than the fact that it was an abandoned campfire," McDonald said. "That is something we're looking for and we'll follow up."

Park officials discover remnants of illegal campfires in Chugach State Park frequently, said Tom Harrison, superintendent of Chugach and southwest area for the state's Department of Natural Resources. Campfires are permitted in designated areas with provided structures like fire rings, Harrison said.

But visitors start campfires everywhere, he said.

"Unfortunately, the campfires range from pretty small innocuous things in the backcountry to larger pallet parties with beer cans and other things left behind," Harrison said. "Everybody loves their fires."

The remnants of campfires are cleared when discovered, so people passing through don't get the same idea or think the spots are safe to light fires, he said.

Campfires are permitted in the following drainages with gravel bars below the timberline: Eklutna, Peters Creek, Meadow Creek, Bird Creek and Eagle River excluding its south fork. They are not permitted in the McHugh Creek drainage for the specific purpose of preventing wildfires.

Hundreds of firefighters, including hot shot crews from California, worked to extinguish the McHugh fire. The response team reported the fire contained on Monday due to a perimeter built by firefighters, natural barriers without vegetation and persistent rain.

Resources allocated for the McHugh fire will continue to decrease as control of hot spots in the fire area improve, officials said. Firefighters will look for the spots daily over 778 acres using a helicopter equipped with an infrared camera, according to DOF.

There are two crews and two helicopters assigned to the fire, with a total of 141 personnel. But staffing is expected to decrease Thursday as containment objectives are met, according to Forestry officials.

State park officials have opened the Rabbit Creek Trail to Rabbit Lake in Chugach State Park. The trails and adjacent parklands between the Potter Creek and Rainbow trailheads, including all of the McHugh Creek and Rainbow Creek drainages, remain closed to public use.

"Fire managers are working with state park officials to reopen the trails, once it is safe to do so," according to DOF.

Officials said commuters should continue to use caution when driving on the Seward Highway through the fire area. A 35 mph speed limit remains in place for a 2-mile segment along the highway between mileposts 110 and 112. Intermittent road closures are still possible due to falling debris.

Forestry officials noted that escaped campfires are easily preventable by dousing them with water, then stirring the ground around the fire and dousing it again until no heat is present.

Anyone with information that could help the McHugh fire investigation is asked to call the Division of Forestry at 907-761-6430.

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