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Southcentral Alaska wildfire updates: Calmer winds aid firefighters, but evacuation notices remain in place

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: August 23
  • Published August 22

A sign warns motorists of extreme fire danger alongside the Sterling Highway in Soldotna on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)

Calmer winds and reinforcements from out of state have helped firefighting crews get a better handle on wildfires blazing around Southcentral Alaska in recent days, but authorities said some communities still need to be prepared to evacuate.

“The combination of the help in the weather and help in the resources definitely controls things more (since Monday), contains things more so it’s not so hectic,” Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service spokeswoman Bridget Bushue said Thursday.

Fire danger remains high. Smoke crept back into Anchorage on Friday morning and air quality in the city was again at an “unhealthy” level. Authorities are still concerned about smoke, protecting structures from flames, and highway access in the areas of five main fires on the Kenai Peninsula and the Susitna Valley.

Raging winds last weekend stoked two fires that started near Willow. Wind also fanned the Swan Lake fire, which has been burning since June on the Kenai Peninsula. On Sunday and Monday, two new fires started not far from Homer.

People who evacuated earlier this week in the area of the McKinley fire north of Willow are still not allowed to return. Communities in Cooper Landing and Sterling are still on “ready” notice, meaning people should be prepared for potential evacuation. But better mapping about the burns is helping firefighters’ efforts, Bushue said.

“We’re just getting better input from the field so we know what we’re dealing with in much more detail,” she said Thursday. “That makes the operation go smoother.”

The fires are burning much later into the season than usual for the area, a result of extreme drought and record heat this summer. Burn bans are in effect all over the region. The Alaska Department of Conservation issued an advisory Wednesday about degraded air quality from wildfire smoke in Southcentral.

There are 814 personnel fighting the five main Southcentral fires as of Thursday, Bushue said. Those include Alaska firefighters and also crews from the Pacific Northwest.

The Division of Natural Resources urged private pilots to keep their planes out of the airspace overlaying the fires, saying multiple aircraft have encroached on firefighting efforts this week. Flight restrictions on the McKinley fire last from 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. on the Deshka Landing fire; and 8 a.m.-10 p.m. on the Swan Lake fire.

Here are details on the fires in the area, according to the Alaska Wildland Fire Information website, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center and agencies involved in tracking the fires.

For traffic conditions, check the Alaska Department of Transportation’s 511 travel information site. Stretches of the Sterling Highway and the Parks Highway have been closing and reopening — often with pilot cars to lead vehicles through — as conditions allow. Even when those roads are open, drivers can expect delays.

This information is current as of Thursday evening, unless otherwise specified.

Swan Lake fire

Size: 142,542 acres.

Location: On the Kenai Peninsula, northwest and west of Cooper Landing and to the east and northeast of Sterling.

Cause: Lightning in early June.

Containment: 20%

Other information: Smoke from the Swan Lake fire continues to be a major concern, especially around Cooper Landing. The haze brings health concerns and poor visibility, which at times has been as low as 10 feet, Bushue said.

“That’s bad,” she said. The fire "has the potential to enter Cooper Landing from the west and Sterling from the east. That’s what they’re focusing on, is keeping that from happening.”

Cooper Landing and Sterling neighborhoods east of Feuding Lane and east of Adkins Road are still on “ready” notice, meaning people should be prepared for potential evacuation. A Swan Lake fire information line is available at 208-391-3488.

Damage from the McKinley fire, south of Talkeetna, is seen from the Princess Cruise train (Alaska Railroad) Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. (Photo by Valerie Myers)

McKinley fire

Size: 3,752 acres.

Location: North of Willow, in the Susitna Valley.

Cause: Officials initially attributed the fire to wind blowing a tree onto a power line Saturday near Mile 91 of the Parks Highway. As of Wednesday, the cause was listed as “human” in the multi-agency report. Beyond that, the specific circumstances have not yet been determined, Bushue said. If power lines were part of the reason a fire started, that would be considered human-caused, she said.

Containment: 10%

Other information: Increased winds expected this weekend will likely challenge crews battling the McKinley fire. But there’s also a chance of rain Friday for the Susitna Valley, and that could help subdue the blaze.

More sophisticated mapping indicated the size of the McKinley fire is smaller than previously thought. That fire has destroyed an estimated 80 structures. Several agencies are working to get a better estimate of how many structures have burned and determine how many were residences, sheds, shops or outbuildings.

From 10 a.m. to about 2 p.m. Friday, staff will be available at the Menard Memorial Sports Complex in Wasilla and the Upper Susitna Senior Center near Talkeetna to tell people whether their structures had been destroyed. Residents and property owners will need to bring a form of identification linking them to the property they’re inquiring about.

An evacuation order remained in effect for the fire area from Mile 82 to Mile 91 on the Parks Highway. People who were evacuated earlier this week (totaling 350 to 400 evacuees, according to estimates) were not expected to be able to return home until next week.

Nancy Lake Parkway was closed to the public on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019 because of fires in the area. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Deshka Landing fire

Size: 1,543 acres.

Location: Five miles west of the Parks Highway, near Mile 68. This fire is just south of West Deshka Landing Road and west of Nancy Lake Parkway.

Cause: Human. Fire was reported Saturday.

Containment: 15%

Other information: The Deshka Landing fire has not grown significantly in the last 48 hours. Like the McKinley fire, improved mapping has revealed the size of the fire is smaller than previously thought. Fire activity there is “kind of quiet,” Bushue said, “meaning it’s not blowing up, doing anything drastic.” The fire is burning on public land and has moved to the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area, which is currently closed to hunters and recreators. While there are no evacuation orders in effect, residents east of the fire are encouraged to be prepared to evacuate and Red Shirt Lake-area homeowners have access only from the southern part of the lake.

Caribou Lake fire

Size: About 848 acres as of Friday morning.

Location: Northeast of Homer.

Cause: Not yet determined. Fire was reported Monday.

Containment: 10% as of Thursday afternoon.

Other information: The Caribou Lake fire near Homer was expected Thursday to grow more to the east and west because of wind in the forecast, Bushue said. There are no immediate threats to nearby structures. A community meeting about the fire will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at the McNeil Canyon School.

North Fork fire

Size: 59 acres.

Location: Northwest of Homer.

Cause: Human. Fire was reported Sunday.

Containment: 75% as of Friday morning

Other information: As firefighters continue getting the North Fork fire contained, the borough on Friday morning lifted a “ready” evacuation notice (meaning they should be prepared for potential evacuation) for people living along North Fork Road north of the fire and along Diamond Ridge Road to the south.

The Daily News’ Madeline McGee contributed reporting.

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