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McHugh fire spread fast Tuesday, snarled Seward Highway traffic

This story had been updated. Find the latest version here.

Traffic along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, brought to a near-standstill Tuesday by the 300-acre wildfire near McHugh Creek, was moving smoothly through the area Wednesday morning.

Anchorage Fire Department dispatchers said no evacuations occurred overnight from the Rainbow Valley or Potter Marsh areas, which were roughly a mile from the fire Tuesday evening.

Alaska Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry said the fire's behavior early Wednesday repeated Tuesday's pattern.

"It acted up this morning again, and it was doing the same thing it was doing yesterday morning — burning along the road, with debris coming down along the road," Mowry said. "The highway remains open."

Anchorage police dispatchers advised drivers to "proceed with caution" in the area.

Highway webcams showed traffic flowing normally despite heavy smoke from the wildfire.

Flames from the McHugh wildfire crept close to Beluga Point along the Seward Highway on Wednesday morning. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the highway is expected to remain open Wednesday. Flaggers are still staged near the fire in case authorities need to implement a new lane restriction or closure.

"Yesterday the fire was running right along the road, but the situation improved in terms of the road and we're not anticipating one today," McCarthy said.

Anchorage hit a record high temperature of 79 degrees Tuesday based on readings taken at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The previous record was 77 degrees, set in 1986, according to the National Weather Service.

The Weather Service forecast for Turnagain Arm calls for mostly cloudy conditions with a high of 72 degrees Wednesday, with a 30 percent chance of rain Wednesday evening rising to 70 percent by Thursday evening.

Luis Ingram, an Anchorage-based meteorologist with the Weather Service, said forecasters are expecting winds Wednesday from the northwest over Turnagain Arm at 5 to 10 mph, with gusts up to 15 mph.

The rain expected to reach the wildfire region is the result of a front from the eastern Bering Sea that has moved past the Bristol Bay area into Southcentral Alaska.

"We have a front that's moving in and it doesn't look like chances are likely, but there could be something light falling late overnight," Ingram said. "This rain that's potentially falling tonight would be on the lighter side."

Forecasters didn't receive any details overnight Tuesday on the density or direction of travel for smoke from the fire, Ingram said.

Tuesday night story:

A wildfire burning above McHugh Creek grew quickly on Tuesday, seriously snarling traffic on the Seward Highway and inching closer to a small subdivision in Rainbow Valley to the south and toward Potter Marsh to the north.

Officials were visibly frustrated that fire crews had to fight traffic to get to staging areas throughout the day Tuesday. Anchorage police cautioned Tuesday afternoon that the Seward Highway — the only road connection between the Kenai Peninsula and the rest of Alaska — could be closed "at any point" due to the fire, but the road was fully reopened Tuesday night.

Tom Kurth, chief of wildland fire and aviation for the Alaska Division of Forestry, said the road opening was "tenuous" and people should continue to check for possible restrictions.

By Tuesday evening, the wildfire had settled down. But fire officials worried about a big change in weather. Scores of firefighters were stationed out in the McHugh Creek area overnight Tuesday, trying to keep the fire contained as it burned in rocky and steep terrain. One of the biggest variables was wind, which could drive the fire toward the homes that sit on both sides of the flames, about a mile away, Kurth said.

"The number one enemy of the firefighters and friend of the fire behavior is wind," he said at a Tuesday evening press conference.

The National Weather Service said winds of between 12 and 15 mph were expected to continue to blow to the southeast Tuesday night and into early Wednesday, diminishing in the afternoon, according to meteorologist Louise Fode.

For most of the day Tuesday, the fire tangled traffic on the Seward Highway. Vehicles remained backed up for miles, down to just one lane with a pilot car guiding traffic amid fallen debris. Traffic delays stretched beyond two hours.

The long line of vehicles stuck on the roadway Tuesday was a snapshot of an Alaska roadway in the summer — trucks with dipnets strapped to their roofs, tour buses, RVs, campers, trailers and Subarus.

Southbound traffic backed up from Potter Marsh waits to move on a Seward Highway reduced to one-lane traffic as the McHugh Creek wildfire continues to burn on Tuesday afternoon, July 19, 2016, along Turnagain Arm. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Above the roadway, winds blew plumes of smoke toward the southeast. The fire grew early Tuesday. Fire officials estimated it was about 300 acres by the afternoon, fueled by dense brush, winds, high temperatures and low humidity. That was downgraded from an estimate of 500 to 600 acres earlier in the day. Heavy smoke was making accurate mapping difficult, officials said.

Anchorage assistant fire chief Alex Boyd said the main focus Tuesday was on stopping the fire from clearing the ridge northwest of Rainbow Valley. The Rainbow side of the fire made little movement during the day, Boyd said. Fire crews were setting up sprinklers and clearing brush around 17 homes in the valley.

A Convair CV580 air tanker drops fire retardant on the McHugh Creek wildfire below McHugh Peak on Tuesday afternoon, July 19, 2016, along Turnagain Arm. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

At the same time, Boyd said officials were "trying to quell the panic" developing among residents to the north, on the Potter Valley side of the fire. The fire was just over a mile away from Potter Valley late Tuesday afternoon and from the homes in Rainbow Valley, said Sarah Saarloos, Alaska Division of Forestry spokeswoman. No evacuations had been ordered by late Tuesday, she said. However, some residents had started packing their bags.

Meanwhile, about 100 people worked on the fire. Air tankers were dropping fire retardant and helicopters were dropping buckets of water on the north flank of the fire to help halt the slow progression toward Potter Marsh, on the southern outskirts of Anchorage. The fire on that side was "just kind of creeping through the woods," Boyd said.

Boyd said a growing amount of attention was being put toward "contingency planning" in Potter Marsh area in case the weather took a turn for the worse.

A helicopter drops water on the McHugh Creek wildfire on a slope above the Seward Highway on Tuesday afternoon, July 19, 2016, along Turnagain Arm. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Fire officials were first alerted to the fire late Saturday night. The fire was fed by wind gusts topping 30 mph Monday afternoon, Phil Blydenburgh, an assistant fire manager with the Division of Forestry, said, and began to aggressively expand by about 2 a.m. Tuesday.

Tim Mowry, a state Division of Forestry spokesman, said the fire "was kind of behaving better as the day wore on" Tuesday. The cause of the fire remained under investigation, he said.

Boyd said that fire crews were setting up a staging area at a rugby field in Potter Valley. An incident command post for the new Type 2 management team was also being set up at Anchorage's Goldenview Middle School.

Additional responders were arriving throughout the day Tuesday, though not as quickly as some might have liked because of the long traffic delays. Boyd said the fire department was being forced to go back and break traffic to get crew members, driving in cars without emergency lights, to the front more quickly.

Southbound traffic is backed up on the Seward Highway near Potter Marsh on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, due to firefighting activity in the area of McHugh creek. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

"We're not getting the resources we need to fight the fire because these people … want to go fishing," Boyd said as a truck passed on the highway with a dipnet on top.

By 3 p.m. Tuesday, the Seward Highway was restricted from Potter Valley Road to Indian, with a pilot car guiding one lane of traffic at a time along the stretch of closed highway.

Smoke rises from the wildlfire near McHugh Creek in this aerial view from over Turnagain Arm and the surrounding Chugach Mountains on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Shannon McCarthy, with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the lane closure early Tuesday was ordered so workers could clear any burning materials that had fallen on the highway. McCarthy said that fire on the mountainside had burned trees that tumbled into the roadway. The trees' roots dislodged rocks, which also fell.

"It's one lane at this point, so that they can have equipment on the road working," McCarthy said.

Tuesday afternoon, DOT advised against traveling on the highway and warned again of two to three hour delays.

Earlier in the day, before the warnings were issued, Mike Wachsmuth stood outside the passenger door of a van trying to see down the highway.

Wachsmuth is the development officer for Hope Community Resources, an Anchorage nonprofit that works with people with disabilities. He was part of a group on a day trip to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood. Last year, Wachsmuth worked as a cook for crews fighting the destructive Sockeye fire in Willow.

Red fire retardant is dropped from a plane onto an area on the northern edge of the McHugh Creek wildfire on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

As traffic remained stalled, a train horn sounded, and a gold and blue Alaska Railroad train rumbled past on the nearby tracks along Turnagain Arm.

"That's how we should have gone," Wachsmuth said, waving at it. Tim Sullivan, Alaska Railroad spokesman, said the fire had not interrupted Tuesday's train schedule.

Farther down the highway, next to one car, a child sat on a training toilet.

There was some discussion about whether to close the highway entirely, but officials said the safety concerns didn't warrant that step. The main fire was burning on a ridge above the Seward Highway, but had not yet advanced down to the road Tuesday.

Crews came in from around the state to help fight the blaze. A Tuesday update posted on the Alaska Wildland Fire Information blog said a Type 2 management crew formerly assigned to the Tok River Fire was being transferred to help control the McHugh Creek fire. In addition, Lower 48 fire crews were tasked with helping suppress the fire. Two firefighters were treated at a hospital Monday for heat exhaustion and dehydration.

People stop at the Beluga rest stop along the Seward Highway and Turnagain Arm to look at the McHugh Creek Fire on the evening of Monday, July 18, 2016 south of Anchorage, AK. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Anchorage Office of Emergency Management announced Turnagain Arm was under a Red Flag warning for hot temperatures and gusty winds Tuesday, effective until 10 p.m. The Anchorage Fire Department announced a ban on open burning and trail closures in the Chugach State Park.

Anchorage's Department of Health and Human Services issued a health advisory for air quality Tuesday afternoon, through a statement from spokeswoman Amory Lelake.

"McHugh Creek wildfire smoke is affecting Turnagain Arm communities and some South Anchorage locations," Lelake wrote. "Smoky conditions will vary around Anchorage depending on location and time of day."

The National Weather Service's seven-day forecast for the area calls for sunny skies shifting to cloudy conditions and cooler temperatures by Wednesday, with a 60 to 80 percent chance of rain on Thursday.

The McHugh Creek wildfire burn area as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, 2016 (Courtesy Division of Forestry)

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