With lots of rain in forecast, McHugh fire comes under control

As rain continued to fall Monday on the McHugh fire south of Anchorage, fire officials shifted toward a "mop-up operation" after the 778-acre blaze was completely boxed in thanks to a little help from Mother Nature.

Celeste Prescott, the lead spokeswoman for the team fighting the fire, said Monday that about a third of the fire's perimeter had been contained by firefighters, with the remaining two-thirds naturally confined.

"Thirty-five percent of the perimeter has a traditional constructed fire line that was constructed by fire personnel using various resources," Prescott said. "The other 65 percent is actually where the fire has burnt into areas that don't have any more vegetation to burn — basically rocks, scree."

According to a Monday statement posted on the Alaska Wildland Fire Information blog, the fire's footprint remains at 778 acres, but crews are planning to widen the perimeter surrounding the fire to 300 feet where possible and ensure the fire's edge is extinguished.

Some internal pockets of vegetation within the fire area were still burning and producing smoke in the immediate area Monday.

On a helicopter flight over the fire area Monday, heat emitting from several pockets was recorded, said Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team public information officer Kale Casey. On Tuesday, ground crews and aerial assets will "search and destroy" the hot spots, he said.

Chugach State Park closures, as well as a temporary flight restriction of the fire area, remain in effect.

The stretch of the Seward Highway under a lowered 35 mph speed limit has been reduced to a 2-mile section of road between McHugh Creek and Beluga Point, Prescott said. Pullouts along the highway in the area, which had been closed to keep traffic on the road moving, were being reopened Monday.

Crews removed hundreds of sprinklers and thousands of feet of hose that were set up to protect homes in the Rainbow subdivision. Removal of the structure protections have also started in Potter Valley, Casey said.

Fire officials also posted a video of firefighting efforts by pilot Jim Acer, who spent much of last week flying a Bell 412 helicopter helping to drop water on the fire.

Five Hotshot crews battling the aftermath of the blaze returned to Anchorage Monday. They'll rest up before heading to California to fight wildfires there, Casey said.

"That's where they're needed," he said.

Monday’s seven-day forecast for the fire area, issued by the National Weather Service, calls for a mix of rain and showers through at least Thursday, with strong winds ranging from 20 to 30 mph.

Joe Wegman, an Anchorage-based meteorologist with the weather service, said Monday morning that the fire will receive an extended dose of precipitation.

“It is raining on the fire and all around it as we speak,” Wegman said. “It looks like that should continue for at least the next few hours.”

Wegman said forecasters aren’t expecting the high winds to help expand the fire much, given this week’s rainy forecast.

“Everywhere it tries to spread will be really wet,” Wegman said.

The Anchorage Fire Department rescinded a municipality-wide burn ban at noon Monday, but warned that it might be reinstated in the event of “a return to warm and dry weather conditions.”

AFD officials asked residents to call the department’s burn hotline, at 907-267-5020, to confirm that the day is a burn day before building any fires.