Anchorage

Wildland fire in East Anchorage started near camps, officials say as investigation of cause continues

Wildland fire

A wildland fire that blew up suddenly Thursday afternoon in a wooded area of East Anchorage started in the area of numerous homeless camps, fire officials say.

But the actual cause of the blaze remained unclear early Friday as an investigation continued.

The fire burned just over 13 acres in the forest near the intersection of Elmore and Dowling roads, and by late Thursday containment had reached 50%. Hot, dry conditions in Anchorage increased fire danger Thursday, and the municipality implemented a burn ban throughout the city.

A combination of air tanker retardant lines, helicopter bucket drops and dozens of firefighters on the ground “caught” the fire to the point that containment was expected to rapidly improve, according to Division of Forestry public information officer Mike McMillan.

No structures were threatened and no homes evacuated Thursday.

But as the flames intensified in the trees off Dowling, about 10 people emerged from homeless camps in the area, Anchorage Assistant Fire Chief Alex Boyd said Friday morning. They were allowed to return later after being interviewed by investigators, though were encouraged to find other places to stay.

“We’re still investigating the actual source of the fire,” Boyd said. “There’s evidence of camps all around near where the origin is. Whether or not it was something from an old fire, something that was dropped in there ... we’re just not comfortable saying we believe it to be a camp. There are lots of camps in that area. And the fire burned so intensely as it moved through.”

wildland fire, wildfire, Anchorage Fire Department, firefighters
Wildland fire

Separately, he said, there is an ongoing criminal investigation into four people suspected of intentionally starting fires in the east Chester Creek Trail area this summer. A spokeswoman for the Anchorage Police Department said she had no additional information Friday morning.

Boyd said he didn’t believe any of those people were seen in the area of the Elmore Fire before it started Thursday.

“There’s no witness statements or evidence leaning us toward this was intentionally set,” he said. ”But ... when we did MLK, we thought the same thing — until we found the flare.”

Thursday’s fire burned near the site of a human-caused fire in 2019 that prompted evacuations of area homes. That fire was later determined to be caused by a flare fired into the ground near a camp, Boyd said.

[Alaska’s fire agencies are preparing for more starts during an already historic wildfire season]

There was no lightning reported in the area of Thursday’s fire, McMillan said. Eight Division of Forestry firefighters stayed and worked on the fire overnight into Friday including an incident commander, he said. A hotshot crew from the Lower 48 also arrived Friday morning.

Crews finished chain-sawing a line around the fire Thursday night to allow firefighters to lay hoses around it, he said. “Once they have hose all the way around the fire, it’s just a matter of spraying the edges and working their way in.”

The center of the fire was still burning late Thursday but crews had a 10- to 15-foot “wet” line around the fire along with several large retardant drops, Boyd said. The combination was causing significant smoke in East Anchorage on Friday, he said. Additional reports of smoke also came in from Mat-Su.

All roads in the area were reopened early Friday, Anchorage police said. The Anchorage Office of Emergency Management said on social media that drivers should give crews enough space to work in the coming days.

The fire drew a large, unified response as soon as it began, officials said. Crews from the Anchorage Fire Department, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and the state Division of Forestry fought the fire. Anchorage police remained on scene to handle traffic and prepare for potential evacuations. Anchorage fire officials say they turned over operations to the state late Thursday evening.

That big gray column of smoke rising from East Anchorage on a hot afternoon raised alarms.

But Boyd said several factors made this fire different from one in late May that prompted brief but dire concerns about a major Hillside wildfire.

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

For one thing, winds pushed the flames toward an area previously burned in 2019, Boyd said. Then several retardant drops from an air tanker boxed in the head of the fire. Ground crews worked the perimeters of the fire and a Forestry helicopter dropped buckets of water.

And the fire was bordered by a creek and a dogsled trail winding from Tozier Track that served as a fuel break that helped to slow the fire’s spread, he said Friday. “It provided a break for us yesterday. Without that, it would have run.”

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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