Wildfire poses ‘potentially cataclysmic danger’ in areas of Anchorage with limited road escape routes

If a wildfire were to spread on the Anchorage Hillside, some neighborhoods would quickly be cut off from evacuating by limited roads.

That’s the scenario John See, a retired state forester and fire official, wants people to understand when they contemplate the growing threat of wildfire to Alaska’s biggest city.

Once, he put together a drill for residents of a Hillside neighborhood who wanted to practice what they’d do in case of a wildfire emergency.

Imagine, he told the neighbors, a fire that starts in the forested Old Rabbit Creek Park. Driven by strong winds, the fire whips up over a hill to their houses.

Within 20 minutes, fire would breach the unpaved road that is the only way out of the cluster of handsome homes with views of Cook Inlet.

Anyone who hadn’t evacuated by then would be trapped.

During the drill, “we gave the word that the fire had breached the road here and there was no egress out of the neighborhood,” he said. “So then people had to think about, well, where do I go?”


The scariest part: “This is a realistic scenario,” See said.

Earlier this month, See and University of Alaska Anchorage researcher Jennifer Schmidt released a first-of-its-kind study that uses geographic mapping tools and community meetings to define Anchorage’s wildfire risks, including a map that identifies where each neighborhood’s highest risk areas are, and the road escape routes.

For some neighborhoods, the risk is stark: For example, Bear Valley’s Clark Road is the only exit route for about 200 homes.

The report is a “call to action” to Anchorage residents to “navigate the potentially cataclysmic danger of a major wildfire.”

The risk mounts with each passing year, the report concludes: Lengthening fire seasons, natural increase in vegetation loads, climate change driven weather patterns and dwindling budgets for fire mitigation “pose an increasingly higher risk for the potential loss of life, homes, and infrastructure.”

See for years has warned of the looming wildfire threat to the Anchorage Hillside. He’s not the only one.

[From 2022: With conditions primed, Anchorage’s Hillside stares down a long-running wildfire threat]

It’s not a matter of if but when a wildfire happens, said Joe Albrecht, a retired Anchorage Fire Department captain who has also tried for years to raise alarms about what wildfire danger means to a place with a limited road grid.

“If it gets under the right weather conditions, there’s going to be an incident,” Albrecht said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

The worst-case scenario?

“With no road access, or with a single access point,” he said, “you’re going to wind up with people being trapped.”

Schmidt and See’s report says it was partly inspired by the specter of the Paradise fire, which killed 85 people in a California town — many as they tried to evacuate on the only road out of town. The same thing could happen at Milepost 3 of Eagle River Road or other locations if firefighters couldn’t reach the incident because the road was blocked, the report says.

“The time to focus on this problem is now, before the embers rain down upon the (wildland urban interface) landscapes of the Chugach Mountain Foothills,” the report says.

Routes to safety are important, said Alex Boyd, deputy chief of the Anchorage Fire Department.

“Community leaders get overwhelmed with this idea that we have these massive forests around us that need to be dealt with, and we need to be cutting trees and putting in fire breaks,” he said. “But the reality is a lot of effort can be placed into improving egress routes, expanding roadways.”

If a major wildfire unfolded in Anchorage, the city fire department would struggle to stop it without wildland firefighting resources such as helicopters.

“We know in these wildland urban interface environments, we do not have the resources, the staffing or equipment to be able to attack these fires,” he said. “So we’re essentially just trying to ensure that as many people can get out of the way as possible, and doing our best. ”


Schmidt and See’s report used the participation of dozens of people from nine community councils who attended meetings, discussed evacuation routes and marked up maps, identifying streets with dead-ends. A map for each council area identifies dead-end streets and other streets presenting fire egress concerns.

The group also identified solutions: developing alternate escape routes, encouraging home inspections for wildfire safety, practicing neighborhood evacuation drills, and improving public emergency notification systems.

Schmidt had previously created a wildfire hazard map using 2014 aerial imagery. The map uses vegetation types to show which neighborhoods would be most at risk, and how embers could travel to spark other fires.

Over the past decade or so, people have become more aware of the danger, Albrecht said.

The McHugh Creek wildfire of 2016, which came within one ridge of homes at the extreme south of Potter Valley Road, was a wake-up call for many, he said. Community councils and neighborhoods talk about the risks. Some even have staged drills like the one See participated in.

But the limited egress still poses urgent risks, Albrecht said. Roads need emergency connections to secondary routes. That’s probably not a simple or quick fix, he said.

“John has been working his tail off for years trying to get that across to folks,” Albrecht said. “It’s working. But it’s not working fast enough.”

And there are other concerns: Last May, firefighters quickly put down a fire on Zircon Circle that some worried could be the long-dreaded major Hillside wildfire. One resident, Ky Holland, wrote that information from the Anchorage Fire Department was lacking, and he ended up turning to Facebook for timely updates.


Standing on a dead-end street in the Goldenview area on a recent morning, Albrecht and See looked out into a damp sea of spring-green cottonwood, willow and birch trees. At the moment, the air was cool and damp and rain was in the Memorial Day weekend forecast. But it takes so little to prime Anchorage’s forests for wildfire, See said.

“Three days of sun and wind.”

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Read the report:

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.