Update, 7 a.m. Monday: The Sterling Highway was closed Monday morning between miles 53 and 71, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Several major wildfires continued to impact people in Southcentral Alaska Sunday with highway closures and delays, smoke and questions about when residents evacuated due to the devastating McKinley fire would be able to return to their homes.
At a community meeting held Sunday for people affected by the McKinley fire north of Willow, incident commander Norm McDonald said the eight-day-old fire is still being fought.
“We have about 450 firefighters here on location, and another 100 coming in tomorrow,” said McDonald, wildland fire chief with the Division of Forestry.
Some aspects of life are returning to a kind of normalcy, he said: Electricity is coming back on in many fire-affected subdivisions, McDonald said at the community meeting.
On Monday, the Parks Highway should be open to two lanes of traffic, he said.
“We feel we’re at a point where smoke has diminished. That’s step one of getting things back to somewhat normal,” he said.
The Division of Forestry is reevaluating its evacuation orders for the McKinley fire, and with borough approval, people could get permission to return to their homes as soon as early this week, McDonald said.
“People need to get back in there and evaluate their homes, assess the damage,” McDonald said.
Winter is only six to eight weeks away, he said.
The Department of Forestry released a statement warning of unseen hazards people returning to their homes might face, such as patches of burning material under a thin dirt crust.
“There are ongoing hazardous situations and dangers that can be difficult to identify after the initial fire front,” The Division of Forestry said in a Facebook post. “It is best to stay away from your home or business until fire officials tell you it is safe to return. Use caution and good judgment, ultimately you are responsible for your own safety and well-being.”
Firefighters are making progress on the nearby Deshka Landing fire, but are contending with heavy brush and fallen trees along the southern border of the fire.
“Dry and heavy duff layers make mop-up operations more difficult as the fire burns deeply,” the Division of Forestry said in a Sunday update.
No new evacuation orders have been announced for the Deshka Landing fire.
South of Anchorage, the Swan Lake fire billowed smoke north to Anchorage.
Firefighters spent Sunday constructing control lines in the Lake Skilak area, south of the Sterling highway, in an effort to stop the fire from spreading toward the populated areas of Cooper Landing and Sterling, said Jay Aron, a spokesman for the current fire management team.
Thick smoke necessitated delays and at one point the closure of the Sterling Highway between miles 53-71 Sunday.
The Swan Lake fire has grown to 148,000 acres, with 20 percent contained.
Smoke from the fire is expected to drift to Anchorage this week, with forecasters saying there’s little chance for the kind of rain that could seriously tamp down the wildfire’s spread.