With conditions primed, Anchorage’s Hillside stares down a long-running wildfire threat

For decades, Anchorage has worried about — and unevenly prepared for — a wildfire on the Hillside, where about 30,000 people live in densely wooded subdivisions that meet the thousands of acres of Chugach State Park wilderness.

wildfire, wildland fire, Rabbit Creek Road, Golden View Drive

Alex Boyd saw a plume of black smoke rising from the Anchorage Hillside on Sunday night and wondered if this was it — the wildfire the city has been dreading for decades.

The Anchorage Fire Department assistant chief jumped in his SUV and maneuvered it toward Rabbit Creek Road, watching trees bend against a bluebird sky, the exact dry and gusty conditions that stoke wildfires to spread out of control. On the radio, he heard that a home in the Rabbit Creek area was engulfed in flames.

“I was sure this was it,” said Boyd, a no-nonsense firefighter who has worked for the department for more than 20 years. “The conditions were aligned.”

Firefighters were able to knock that fire down before it spread to adjacent forested land. But just barely.

If fire personnel had responded even five minutes later, “the story could have been different,” Boyd said three days later, standing in the yard of the burned home amid charred lumber and scorched fiddlehead ferns still waiting to unfurl.

Anchorage wildland fire danger

For more than a generation, Anchorage has been worrying about — and unevenly preparing for — a wildfire on the Hillside, where about 30,000 people live in densely wooded subdivisions that meet thousands of acres of Chugach State Park wilderness.

After a few damp and calm summers, a stretch of dry, sunny weather has primed Southcentral Alaska for wildfire. Heading into a Memorial Day weekend with forecast temperatures of 70 degrees or more on top of gusty winds and low humidity, officials are warning of extreme fire danger in Anchorage and throughout the region.

“This is what fire weather looks like,” said Kale Casey, a fire information officer for the state Division of Forestry. “This is what Alaska looks like when it’s shaping up to have fast-moving wildfires.”

This week, officials have taken uncommon steps to head off the risk: On Tuesday, the municipality passed an emergency ordinance that made violating a burn ban on public land a misdemeanor crime. On Thursday, Chugach Electric said it was changing the way it responds to powerline short-circuits and clearing dead trees from right-of-ways “to mitigate wildfire risks.”

[Warm weather, gusty winds bring high fire danger for Southcentral Alaska over holiday weekend]

The last time the Hillside burned

The boreal forest of the Anchorage Hillside hasn’t seen a major fire since 1973, when 300 acres in the Prospect Heights area ignited during land clearing and burned. At the time, the Hillside was lightly populated. No houses were destroyed.

Anchorage, hillside, wildfire, fire, danger, firewise

Half a century later, things have changed. The area is dotted with some of the highest-dollar real estate in the city, from Bear Valley to Potter Valley to Stuckagain Heights. An estimated 30,000 people live there. If the same fire happened today, it could burn thousands of homes.

“As folks push into this wildland-urban interface, the risk gets higher,” Boyd said.

The dynamics of the Hillside — homes in wooded areas with lots of the coniferous trees that spread fire easily, access via limited road grids, exposure to high winds, areas without fire hydrants — have long caused alarm. The absolute worst case scenario? Experts say a wind-driven, fast-moving fire could rip from McHugh Creek to Eagle River in less than a day.

But preparations have waxed and waned along with funding, fire experts say.

anchorage hillside, fire, hillside, wildfire, wildland fire

The Miller’s Reach fire of 1996, which destroyed hundreds of homes near Big Lake and caused more than $10 million in damages, raised public awareness of the danger of wildfire within the Anchorage Bowl, said John See, a retired former forestry official and Anchorage municipal forester. Part of the reason: Miller’s Reach wasn’t seen as an area at major risk for wildfire before the blaze, he said.

“I think it got everybody’s attention because we said, ‘Boy, it can happen just about anywhere in Alaska.’ ”

Around the same time, a massive influx of spruce bark beetles in the late 1990s left behind a carpet of dead, dry trees and raised the visibility of the wildfire threat.

In the 2000s, a flood of federal dollars funded preparation and education programs, See said. Millions were spent on grants to help homeowners make their houses and yards safer for wildfire. AFD started up a wildfire mitigation program, even leasing use of a helicopter, according to Boyd. South Anchorage schools simulated evacuation and sheltering in the event of a fire.

Around 2010, funding started to contract, Boyd said. The urban wildfire threat became a quieter issue.

Anchorage’s vulnerability to wildfire came roaring back into view in 2016, when an unextinguished campfire near the McHugh Creek trailhead sparked a blaze that burned hundreds of acres in Chugach State Park south of Anchorage, stopping just shy of homes. That fire drew so near the city that Potter Valley Road residents prepared to evacuate and set sprinklers on their roofs.

“I tasted fear,” one resident told the Daily News at the time. “Tasted it.”

People remembered how fluid the boundary between city and wildfire could be. At the time, See called it “an awakening,” with residents clearing yards and crowding the city woodlot to get rid of debris.

McHugh Creek fire
McHugh Fire
McHugh Creek fire
McHugh Fire
McHugh Creek fire

“The McHugh fire really woke people up,” said Jen Schmidt, an assistant professor of natural resources and policy with the University of Alaska Anchorage. Schmidt created a wildfire hazard map for Anchorage that uses 2014 NASA aerial imagery data, showing which neighborhoods are most at risk for wildfire based on the kinds of vegetation in each area, and how embers might travel to ignite other fires.

The map shows most of the Anchorage Hillside as red, the highest exposure to hazard.

Next came the scorching summer of 2019, when Anchorage hit 90 degrees for the first time and a large wildfire in Cooper Landing blanketed the city with smoke for days at a time. The destructive McKinley fire between Willow and Talkeetna destroyed more than 50 homes and prompted hundreds of evacuations. A brush fire that started in an encampment cropped up in the middle of the city, burning 25 acres near the Campbell Tract greenbelt.

brush fire, fire, forest fire, wildfire, wildland fire

If conditions line up the same way this year, Anchorage is again at risk.

“If we see another summer like 2019, where we have Fourth of July temperatures in the 90s, watch out,” See said. “This boreal forest is going to have a struggle.”

On Wednesday, Boyd drove around Anchorage looking at some of the week’s near misses for potential wildfires. From Sunday to Wednesday, there had been 90 fire starts around the city. None had gotten out of control. About 20 of them were in homeless encampments on public land, he said.

Anchorage wildland fire danger

He drove to one at a camp that had been tucked into the woods near the Chester Creek Trail. A duff layer on the ground had burned, but the fire had failed to ignite tall trees. This scenario — warm, dry weather, an unattended fire — could quickly spiral.

The mean May temperature in Anchorage has warmed 4 degrees in the past 50 years.

“We’ve had enough climate change,” Boyd said. “Conditions are becoming pretty significant for us to have a major fire.”

Another wildcard issue this year: A new cycle of beetle kill that started around 2018 or 2019 has left thousands of highly flammable dead, mature spruce trees dotting the city.

The progression has been rapid, said Mike Braniff, municipal parks and trails safety foreman: He climbed to the top of the Hilltop ski jump in 2020 and saw a sea of green. Repeating the exercise recently, he saw dead spruce dotting the landscape.

Anchorage wildland fire danger

The city has used federal pandemic relief funds to pay workers and contractors to remove about 3,000 dead trees so far, both for risk of falling and for wildfire safety, Braniff said, standing in Muldoon’s Centennial Park while chain saws buzzed in the background.

The dead spruce will be a “significant contributor as we move into these next few fire cycles,” Boyd said.

Readiness

Linda Janidlo built her home on the mid-Hillside in 1998. She was finishing yard work on Sunday when her husband spotted the smoke from their bathroom window. It was the fire on Zircon Circle, the one Boyd had worried might be the big one.

“I saw smoke and I didn’t know if it was a block or a mile away,” she said.

Janidlo got an elderly neighbor evacuated because she knew the situation could turn quickly and she didn’t want to wait until things got bad. The McHugh fire was a wakeup call, she said. Ever since then, she’s taken steps recommended by AFD’s Firewise program to make her house safer, such as cutting back brush and replacing siding with less flammable materials. About 100 households get Firewise inspections each year, according to AFD.

Still, “the idea that where we live, there’s only one way in and out, is a bit terrifying,” she said. “We didn’t think about it when we built our house.”

Anchorage wildland fire danger

Ky Holland has lived much of his life on the Anchorage Hillside. He’s part of a Rabbit Creek Community Council committee that has taken a leading role in helping residents prepare for wildfires through mitigation like cutting down trees and clearing brush around homes, having houses inspected for free by the Firewise program and making a plan for evacuation.

“We’ve trained before on what to do in the case of a wildfire,” he said. “We’ve talked about ‘ready, set, go’ and go bags. We have a phone tree.”

Sunday’s Rabbit Creek fire highlighted what Holland still sees as a concern: how people will know when they are at risk from a fast-moving fire.

“There was no official, authoritative, timely information about what was going on to alert folks to the fact that this was by all measures, a disaster that could have unfolded,” Holland said.

If a major wildfire did happen, people would likely hear about evacuations via Nixle alerts and possibly cellphone takeovers, where an emergency alert gets sent to every person’s phone, Boyd said. Police might also do initial door-to-door evacuation notices, he said.

Holland isn’t waiting.

“If there’s a fire and it looks like it’s gonna get serious, let’s just pack up and leave ahead of time,” he said.

Anchorage wildland fire danger

This Memorial Day weekend may pass without a fire. Boyd hopes so. But in the long-term, Anchorage is certainly at greater risk than it has been in the past. He sees a wildfire as inevitable. The question is how bad it will be.

Janidlo, the Rabbit Creek resident, said she felt safer seeing how quickly crews contained Sunday night’s fire. But she got nervous when she saw a neighbor having a bonfire a few days later. Holiday weekends worry her.

“With the summers being so much warmer and drier lately and with the winds — I don’t remember the winds ever being so fierce — we’re all at risk,” she said. “One spark in the wrong place and you’re out of luck.”

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.