Rain eases worries as firefighters go on offensive against McHugh Creek blaze

Officials said five days of rain or moisture in the forecast allowed fire crews, previously on the defensive, to make a more direct attack on the 842-acre McHugh Creek fire Thursday.

Two crews consisting of about 60 firefighters are digging a break line at the edge of the fire near the McHugh Creek cutoff on Seward Highway, said Alaska Division of Forestry spokesperson Sarah Saarloos Thursday evening.

The firefighters intend to extend the break line around the entire fire, at which point it will be considered 100 percent contained. As of 7 p.m. Thursday, the fire was about 5 percent contained, she said.

The fire has not grown over the past 24 hours due to a light drizzle Thursday morning and overcast hanging over the blaze and the Anchorage Bowl.

"We're using that light rain as an opportunity to insert fire crews and to start building a barrier around the fire," Saarloos  said.

There have been no residential evacuations or closures along the Seward Highway, Anchorage police and fire dispatchers said.

A mix of rain and loose rocks means road delays along the Seward Highway remain a possibility, said Incident Commander Tom Kurth during a drizzly 10 a.m. press conference.


The Alaska Wildland Fire Information blog, maintained by fire officials, reported Thursday morning that structure protection had been completed in Rainbow Valley subdivision. Similar efforts for the Potter Valley area were completed later in the day.

Potter Valley lacks fire hydrants, so firefighters snaked fire hoses throughout the neighborhood to access if the flames begin to spread again, Saarloos said. The protection tools in Rainbow Valley are also staying put, she said.

"A significant indicator of a reduction of threat (from the fire) would be the removal of those structure protection tools," Saarloos said. "We're not removing them yet."

According to Alaska Wildland Fire Information, winds blowing from the southeast carried smoke from the fire into Anchorage beginning at about 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Anchorage-based meteorologists have been using webcam images to track the spread of smoke into Anchorage overnight. Shawn Baines, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said Thursday evening the smoke was worst in East Anchorage and the Hillside.

Southeast winds of up to 25 mph will continue Thursday evening but calm Friday. And by Friday night, the wind could shift to the northwest, carrying smoke away from the city, Baines said.

There are worries about the gusts, because trees already scorched by the fire can easily fall and hurt firefighters, Saarloos said. More troubling is the prospect of the winds causing rapid spread of the fire in hard-to-reach areas. Vegetation in steep terrain can burn quickly, she said.

The eastern portion of the fire will be harder to reach and establish a break line, she said. Terrain poses challenges for the fire crews but barrier-building efforts will continue throughout the week, she said.

Meteorologists were receiving only weak radar returns on rain over the city Thursday morning. The forecast's strongest chances for significant rain are expected Friday.

.A map of the McHugh Creek fire's 842-acre perimeter was released by fire officials Thursday morning. (Courtesy Alaska Wildland Fire Information)

A map of the McHugh Creek fire's 842-acre perimeter was released by fire officials Thursday morning. (Courtesy Alaska Wildland Fire Information)

"The rain will pick up after midnight, but the steady, possibly heavy rainfall is forecast throughout Friday," Baines said. Up to an inch of rain could douse the Anchorage Bowl while 2 inches of rain is possible in the vicinity of the fire, he said.

Anchorage's Department of Health and Human Services issued a health advisory for the city Thursday due to the overnight shift in wind direction.

"We are predicting 'moderate' air quality for Anchorage and Eagle River for Thursday due to smoke intrusion," DHHS officials wrote. "Wildfire smoke concentrations will vary with your location in the city, rainfall, atmospheric mixing and wind direction."

The advisory was later extended to include Friday.

The department urged anyone with health concerns to call their physicians.

Devin Kelly contributed to this report.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.