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McHugh wildfire increases alarm on the Anchorage Hillside

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: August 31, 2016
  • Published July 23, 2016

Hillside esident Brandon Young, second from left, watches as Anchorage Fire Department Capt. Marc Nokelby, left, and Firefighter Paramedic Marc Esslinger, right, measure the distance a hemlock tree stands from the family residence during an inspection on Friday. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

As the largest wildfire near Anchorage in recent memory broke out near McHugh Creek last week, so did a fresh wave of alarm about a long-feared destructive wildfire on the Anchorage Hillside.

Rain, terrain and luck with wind direction helped fire crews keep the McHugh wildfire from reaching the Anchorage Hillside and hundreds of homes. But as the summer fire season has grown drier and longer in recent years, officials warn it's only a matter of time.

Fire and police officials believe the city is more ready than ever to respond to a major wildfire on the Hillside. It's not clear whether that is true for homeowners who live on the edge of the wilderness.

"That's the big worry. People start thinking about it when they smell smoke," said Bill Miller, acting deputy chief with the Anchorage Fire Department.

Many more people appear to be thinking about it this year. City forester John See, who until recently ran the wildfire mitigation program by himself, said he's been inundated with calls since the spring.  

"This year … I call it 'the awakening,' " See said. "I have hundreds of requests. Hundreds."

See's division has logged 110 inspections so far this year. That's compared to 77 in the entirety of 2015 and about 50 in the two years before that. Inspections peaked in 2005 at 345, not long after the city's "Firewise" program started and public awareness was at its height, See said.

Tim Gibilisco, left, and Justin Jones of Lakeview, Oregon, BLM Hotshot trainee crew check hose connections on a sprinkler system to help protect Rainbow Valley homes as the McHugh Creek wildfire smoldered on Thursday, July 21, 2016. “We’re helping with the fine-tuning,” said Gibilisco, whose team arrived in Alaska yesterday. “Hopefully we don’t even have to turn this on.” (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Door to door

The McHugh fire appears to be adding to the urgency. On Friday, in the pouring rain, See and two firefighters drove up to Potter Heights Drive and started knocking on doors. They had a theory.

"The people who need our help probably aren't calling us," said Marc Esslinger, a paramedic firefighter who has been helping See on the wildfire inspections while recovering from an injury.

For decades, a major wildfire has been feared on the Anchorage Hillside. The intensity of the threat spiked after an epidemic of beetle-killed spruce in the late 1990s.

In 2001, the U.S. Forest Service officially designated Anchorage and Eagle River as at high risk for a wildfire. Since then, millions of dollars have been spent on prevention and risk mitigation efforts. That includes grant money and free consultants to help residents make their homes more likely to survive a blaze.

The fire and police departments also run wildfire drills each year with the state's forestry division, said Alex Boyd, an assistant fire chief.

"I think we're more prepared today than we have ever been," Boyd said. "But we're fooling ourselves if we say we're super ready all the time."

Prompted by the McHugh Creek wildfire, Anchorage Fire Department Capt. Marc Nokelby, Firefighter Paramedic Marc Esslinger and Forester John See cruise heavily-wooded Potter Heights Drive to knock on doors and offer the Firewise Home Assessment Program on Friday, July 22, 2016, in south Anchorage. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Hillside poses thorny challenges when it comes to access. At a community meeting earlier this week, police officials rolled out detailed evacuation plans for the Potter Creek area, including contingency plans if the main road somehow became blocked.

Anchorage crews over the years have built fire breaks between neighborhoods and the wilderness. But See and other city foresters have pushed homeowners to do as much as possible to prepare a home for surviving a blaze.

See is used to being on his own, stringing together grant funding. But he recently got more help. Since the fall, fire stations in the more rural parts of the Anchorage area — Station 11 in Eagle River, Station 8 on O'Malley Road, Station 9 on Huffman Road, Station 10 on Rabbit Creek Road and Station 14 in Stuckagain Heights — banded together to help See do the inspections.

On Friday, See set out in his red forester truck to knock on doors. Esslinger, the paramedic firefighter from Station 11, and Marc Nokelby, a captain with Station 14, followed him in an SUV. As they drove, Esslinger and Nokelby — who call themselves the "Marc and Marc Show" — pointed out that many homes didn't have house numbers that were easy to see.

Pulling up to one driveway, Nokelby got out and knocked on the door. No one answered. Nokelby looked around.

"This gentleman's done some work," he said, pointing to flattened grass leading away from the house. "This is just recent."

Prompted by the McHugh Creek wildfire, Anchorage Fire Department Capt. Marc Nokelby, left, and Forester John See knock on doors in the Potter Heights Drive neighborhood to offer the Firewise Home Assessment Program on Friday, July 22, 2016, in south Anchorage. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Shrubs had been cleared to create more of a lawn-like fire break. Nokelby also noted the metal roof. But a pine tree was too close to the house, he said. On the doorstep, See left a booklet packed with information about bolstering a home against a wildfire, including keeping trees a certain distance from homes.  

Cutting all the trees down on a property goes against the rules for some of the homeowners' associations on the Hillside. But Dale Trombley, president of the Potter Creek Homeowners Association, said that his association does advise keeping some space around homes as protection against fires.

Homeowners who spend $500 to complete the city's wildfire mitigation program can receive an additional $500 in grant money. But the grant money can't be spent on maintenance, See said. That's up to the homeowner.

The agreement says the conditions are supposed to be kept up for five years, See said. But there's no enforcement or penalties for failing to do so. There's also no test or requirement for homeowners in certain areas to complete the inspections.

As the McHugh fire crept closer to the Potter Valley area, a flurry of tree-cutting and brush-whacking ensued. By the middle of the week, the South Anchorage woodlot, which charges $15 for a pick-up load and $30 for loads brought by trucks and trailers, saw a 25 percent jump in drop-offs, said operations manager Tony Clark.

South Anchorage Assemblyman John Weddleton said he worried that homeowners were more complacent than in the early 2000s, when the threat seemed more imminent.  

"You don't see the dead trees, the spruce bark beetle," Weddleton said. "It's not in your face as much."

Anchorage Fire Department Capt. Marc Nokelby leaves a booklet during a Firewise Home Assessment Program visit to properties along Potter Heights Drive prompted by the McHugh Creek wildfire on Friday, July 22, 2016, in south Anchorage. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

During their round of door-knocking, See, Esslinger and Nokelby drove up one gravel driveway and saw a U-Haul van in front of a large house. Brandon Young, 20, answered the door. His stepfather owned the house but Young said he'd do the inspection with See.

See, Nokelby and Esslinger were impressed. The house had tile baseboards and a wide, manicured lawn with few trees. (They found out later it was originally built by a firefighter). Young said he and his family also installed sprinklers on the roof once the McHugh fire became serious.

Esslinger put green ribbon around two trees, one behind a chicken coop and the other in the backyard, that See thought should come down. See also recommended clearing grass near the chicken coop. But the issues were minimal compared to other homes they had inspected.

"You could be the one to stop the rest of the homes" in the neighborhood from burning, See told Young.

But looking over at the house next door, Esslinger saw something that troubled him — piles of wood sitting out in the open next to the house and in an open garage.

Anchorage Fire Department Forester John See eyes the height of a tree while assessing the danger it would pose in falling down slope toward a home during a Firewise Home Assessment Program inspection on Friday, July 22, 2016, in South Anchorage. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

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