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Unpredictable Sockeye wildfire appears to shift directions, moves north

  • Author: Alaska News
  • Updated: July 8, 2016
  • Published June 15, 2015

Update, 8:30 p.m.:

Randall Kowalke and his wife were watching the fire's northward spread "with a fair amount of trepidation" Monday night and planned to throw passports and other important items in a tub before bed.

The couple live about a mile off the Parks Highway at Mile 80 -- 1 1/2 miles from the north end of the evacuation advisory area at West Sheep Creek Drive.

"We see these columns of smoke come up and we get more concerned and then they dissipate for a while," Kowalke said. "And then another column comes up."

Update, 7:45 p.m.:

The forced closure of the Parks Highway from the Sockeye Fire has delayed hundreds of travelers, but likely none with a more ambitious itinerary than De Bruyn Joubert.

Joubert, a 30-year-old South African, set off from Anchorage on Sunday on the latest leg of an epic 45,000 mile bike ride taking him from coast to coast on all seven continents. His North American journey takes him 1,200 miles from Anchorage through Fairbanks to Inuvik in Canada's Northwest Territories, then south towards Panama.

Ultimately, he plans to ride more than 1,000 miles across Antarctica. But first, Joubert has to make it out of the Mat-Su, where the Sockeye Fire has closed his route to all traffic -- even bicycles.

He was stuck at the highway's south roadblock at 7:30 p.m. Monday, sitting on a grassy knoll above a parking lot next to his 180-pound bike, loaded with gear and empty water bottles.

"If they open it, I have to take my gap and go," Joubert said in an interview. Otherwise, he said: "I'm just going to camp out here somewhere."

Joubert has already biked across three continents. Asked where the weather was most similar to the current conditions in Southcentral Alaska, he responded: "I cycled through spring in Australia."

"It was about this hot in the beginning," he said.

Update, 7:15 p.m.:

The Sockeye Fire is moving north suddenly, prompting an evacuation of Sheep Creek Drive at Mile 78.5 of the Parks Highway, according to emergency radio traffic on an open channel. Sheep Creek Drive is north of the fire's starting point at West Sockeye Avenue.

Update, 5:15 p.m.:

The closure of the Parks Highway this afternoon was prompted by a wind shift that's sending the Sockeye Fire toward Willow-Fishhook Road, a populated area that leads from Mile 71 of the Parks Highway up to Hatcher Pass.

"The wind changed direction, it's pushing the fire, coming from the north and pushing it southeast," said Pam Ness, public information officer for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which is handling evacuations. The area already falls under an evacuation advisory.

Ness said reports from the fire are that embers are "spotting" ahead of the main fire front. Crews are still working the fire in the area, she said.

Update: 4:15 p.m.:

The Alaska Division of Forestry reported that the Parks Highway, the main link between Anchorage and Fairbanks, has been shut down again in the area of the Sockeye Fire burning near Willow.

The closure was due to "firefighting activity and fire behavior" on the fire, which had burned about 6,500 acres at last update. The road had been opened earlier Monday to one lane of traffic guided by a pilot vehicle and an Alaska state trooper. Traffic had been backed up on either side of the closure, which extended from milepost 66 to 80 of the highway.

The division recommends visiting visiting the Alaska 511 webpage for the most up-to-date information.

Update: 3:10 p.m.:

The Alaska Division of Forestry reported that although the Sockeye Fire was still estimated at 6,500 acres following a Monday overflight, heavy smoke was obscuring the fire's southern front and making mapping the fire difficult.

"As of late last night, the head of the fire was burning just south of Willow Creek and did not show much movement overnight," the division reported on its Facebook page just before 3 p.m. Cooler temperatures help keep the fire's growth to a minimum overnight, but winds and low humidity were expected to push the fire farther south later Monday.

A plan for fighting the fire was also beginning to materialize.

"Fire managers plan to utilize roads and natural barriers to help control the fire. They are focusing on holding the fire at the railroad tracks on the east side of the Parks Highway and the Susitna River serves as a natural barrier on the west side," the division reported. Smokejumpers had deployed in the area, along with multiple hotshot crews.

Officials said that anyone located in the voluntary evacuation area between mile 63 and 78 of the highway "should seriously consider leaving the area."

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough was attempting to get a more definitive number of homes and cabins destroyed in the blaze, but the division said by late Sunday, there were "approximately 25 primary structures and 10-20 secondary structures" that had been destroyed along the fire's northern end.

Update, 3 p.m.:

Officials with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have begun assessing damage from the Sockeye Fire and a voluntary evacuation remains in effect for homes along the Parks Highway from mile 63 to mile 78, according to a post on the borough's Facebook page.

Though the fire hadn't grown significantly Monday, officials at a news conference in Palmer said firefighters were still working defensively, protecting structures and assisting with evacuation efforts.

Ultimately, they aim to shift into an offensive posture, looking for areas to make a stand against the fire where they're helped by natural features, said Tom Kurth, an incident commander with Alaska's forestry division.

But the hot, dry, windy weather, coming after a dry winter, is making things difficult.

"The fire's moving fast, it's moving hot," said Casey Cook, emergency manager for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. "It's just ripping through patches of black spruce, at probably 20 or 30 miles per hour."

Cook confirmed that some homes had burned in the fire, but couldn't immediately say how many. The borough Assembly member representing the area, Vern Halter, told reporters that he knew of at least 12 that had been lost.

"It's very somber up in Willow right now," Halter said.

The officials were joined at the news conference by Gov. Bill Walker, who walked in in his shirtsleeves and wearing sunglasses just after stepping off a Blackhawk helicopter for an aerial tour of the fire.

He said he was sorry to hear about the homes and some animals that had burned in the fire. But added that he was impressed with the emergency response.

"It was amazing to see the number of homes that were there — that only were there because people risked their lives to fight for their homes," he said.

Walker said he would accept the borough's request for an emergency declaration.

Officials weren't entirely clear about the extent of the area that's immediately at risk from the fire, and the area that's at risk over the long term.

But Cook, the borough's emergency manager, said his job is planning for the "worst-case scenario," like if the fire moves past Willow to Houston, about 15 miles to the southeast.

That planning involves potentially relocating shelters, and bringing in more firefighters and firefighting equipment.

"We're looking at all those options, to make sure that we have not only a plan B and a plan C, a plan D," Cook said.

Update: 2 p.m.:

By early afternoon Monday, authorities decided to increase the Parks Highway escort area near the Sockeye Fire, shifting it 3 miles north to mile 80 from mile 77, the latter of which is near the area where the fire started.

The change was a precautionary measure, said Pam Ness, public information officer for the borough at the Emergency Operations Center. The wind generally shifts during the afternoon, Ness said, but authorities also wanted to preserve the area so investigators could determine the cause of the fire and appraisers could conduct the damage assessment necessary to qualify for a federal disaster listing.

The fire calmed Monday morning and showed no significant increase in size, Ness said. A thick plume of smoke rising west of Kashwitna Lake wasn't reason to worry because the fire continued to burn toward undeveloped land and some farmland, she said. "That's the way we want it to go, is toward the Susitna."

Update, 12:30 p.m.:

At the southern end of the evacuation zone, people are balking at roadblocks or driving around on four-wheelers in attempts to access cabins around Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area, Mat-Su state parks superintendent Wayne Biessel said.

"Folks, especially toward Red Shirt Lake, are trying really hard to get into their cabins to try to save what they can but the troopers and rangers have the roads blocked," Biessel said. "It's a lot of frightened people."

State park officials have evacuated campgrounds within the recreation area and notified people renting cabins, except one person rangers can't get through to, Biessel said. Campground operators at Big Lake are starting to warn campers they may need to move on if the fire advances today.

Meanwhile, reports of homes destroyed in the Sockeye Fire were coming in Monday from neighborhoods on Sharen Drive and Serenity Drive, a dog mushing stronghold just north of Willow, and areas along the Parks Highway around mile 74.

Tam Boeve heard Sunday night her house near mile 74 was lost but a call at 2 a.m. told her the opposite, Boeve said Monday morning, after a sleepless night at the Houston Middle School emergency shelter. Instead, Boeve said, a number of homes in her area were lost.

Mat-Su Borough emergency manager Casey Cook said the wind-swept fire burned some homes in some spots but others, especially those protected by municipal crews from the Mat-Su and Anchorage, were saved. The borough has started door-to-door damage assessments in hopes of letting residents know when it's safe to return, Cook said.

For more information or to provide contact information, people should call 907-761-3700.

Update, 11:30 a.m.:

The Parks Highway is open to one-lane traffic with pilot cars.

"Travelers should expect delays and intermittent closures depending on fire activity. The goal of the day is to keep the road open and move vehicles through the area with pilot cars but that is dependent on fire activity," the Alaska Division of Forestry said.

Check with the 511 road status system before traveling, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said.

For travelers between Anchorage and Fairbanks, an alternative route via the Richardson and Glenn highways avoids the fire zone.

Update, 10:49 a.m.:

Mara Hill and her friends were driving south on the Parks Highway from a weekend trip to Fairbanks and Chena Monday morning. They saw no obvious signs of fire until they reached roughly Mile 77, where flames were visible from the roadway.

"It was pretty much right up to the trees," Hill said.

Cars were being let through on the Parks Highway one direction at a time. Hill said her group waited 30-40 minutes to get through. The smoke was thick.

"We could see through the smoke, several cars in front of us. But the smell was enough that even with the windows rolled up and air off I found myself breathing through my mouth."

Update: 10:37 a.m.:

Firefighters from the West Lakes Fire Department, in the Big Lake and Meadow Lakes area, responded to a small brush fire at 9:45 a.m. Monday near the powerful Sockeye Fire, according to Mat-Su Emergency Services director Bill Gamble.

The Horseshoe Lake Fire was about 50 feet in diameter and was controlled in about 15 minutes, Gamble said. Gamble did not immediately know the cause of the fire. Gamble said the Horseshoe Lake fire did not use resources from the Sockeye Fire.

Update, 10:18 a.m., Fairbanks:

Alaska Railroad passenger trains left on time Monday morning from Anchorage and Fairbanks. A railroad spokesman said the railroad is not transporting any hazardous materials and that speeds will be reduced through the fire area.

The spokesman said an emergency vehicle will travel well in front of the train.

Update, 10:10 a.m., Houston:

At an shelter for weary evacuees from the wildland fire roaring through the Susitna Valley, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough's emergency manager told Willow residents the soonest they could return to their homes would be Tuesday.

Casey Cook told about 30 people eating biscuits and gravy Monday morning the "hot and fast" fire now has a perimeter of about 18 miles. Some homes have burned, Cook said, but the borough won't have specifics until it completes a door-to-door damage assessment that began Monday morning.

The Alaska State Troopers are "trying to curtail" residents from returning to homes off the Parks Highway, he said.

Smoke dulled the air at Houston Middle School, and evacuees asked if they'd have to move again, after a shelter at Willow Community Center closed Sunday when the fire neared.

No -- at least, not yet, Cook said.

"Right now this is probably the safest place for you folks."

Original story:

Officials were in the Willow area Monday trying to determine the extent of damage from the Sockeye Fire, which scorched a destructive path through the area, while the fire continues burning into a second day, heading south.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials were conducting an on-the-ground assessment early Monday to how much damage the fire had caused. Sunday evening the borough estimated that 10 to 15 structures had burned. Officials Monday morning couldn't immediately confirm how many additional structures were destroyed, but expected that number to grow, and hoped to have a new estimate by noon.

An ever-expanding 15-mile evacuation corridor runs along the Parks Highway from north of Willow down to the Nancy Lakes area, with some 1,700 residential structures inside its perimeter, according to an update posted early Monday by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Alaska Division of Forestry, which administers the state's firefighting forces.

As of late Sunday evening, the fire estimated at 6,500 acres was burning on both sides of the Parks Highway, running due south. As of midnight, the fire had reached the Crystal Lakes Road subdivision.

The National Weather Service on Sunday issued a red flag warning for the Susitna Valley, meaning high winds and low humidity could lead to dangerous fire weather. The forecast called for north winds from 10 to 25 mph and 12 to 20 percent relative humidity. The warning was in place through Monday.

One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion.

Some 210 residents signed in overnight at the evacuation centers in Houston, near Talkeetna, and at the North Star Bible Camp on Willow Fishhook Road, according to the update. Shelters are at Houston Middle School at Mile 53 on the Parks Highway and the Upper Susitna Senior Center at Mile 99.

Close to 200 emergency personnel from multiple agencies are responding to the incident, according to the state and borough.

The Parks Highway will be opened as firefighting and public safety allow, officials say. Officials said to expect periodic closures over the next few days and pilot cars guiding traffic through.

A Forestry Division update said the highway was open to limited traffic during the early hours of Monday morning.

The latest report on the Sockeye Fire near Willow is that the Parks Highway is now open. A pilot car is leading cars...

Posted by Alaska DNR- Division of Forestry (DOF) on Monday, June 15, 2015

In a tweet Monday morning, Mat-Su Borough officials said Alaska State Troopers were stopping cars to alternate north and southbound traffic at mile 66.5.

AST stopping point for vehicles is at mile 66.5 of the Parks Highway alternating the north and south traffic.— MatSuBorough (@MatSuBorough) June 15, 2015

Five "hot shot" crews from the Lower 48 have been ordered for the fire and are expected to arrive Monday. Fire managers expected the fire to calm down overnight but continue to spread before picking up again.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued temporary flight restrictions in the area to accommodate firefighting aircraft.

The fire started Sunday afternoon on West Sockeye Avenue, about 7 miles north of Willow just off the Parks Highway. Authorities say the fire was human-caused. Rumors among evacuees blamed fireworks, but authorities said an investigation continues.

By Sunday evening, with the fire rampaging down the Parks Highway and bearing down on downtown Willow, hundreds of people took to emergency shelters. More found refuge with friends or family. Many left their homes with pets but also horses and sled dogs. Willow is home to scores of competitive and recreation dog mushers. A Facebook group, Sockeye Willow Fire Pet and Home Resource Finder, was established to help evacuees who needed help with animals.

Despite reports that flames overtook Capital Speedway racetrack in Willow, owners there posted updates on social media that no structures were lost. But residents who evacuated their homes now don't know if they still stand. Houston residents posting on social media overnight said they are getting ready to leave as a precaution, in case the fire makes it that far south.

By Monday, a tweet from the National Weather Service in Anchorage noted the Sockeye Fire was already large enough to be detected overnight on nighttime satellite imagery.

#SockeyeFire already big enough to be detected on nighttime satellite imagery. #akwx #akfire #Alaska pic.twitter.com/cAjbpgqioU— NWS Anchorage (@NWSAnchorage) June 15, 2015

A voluntary evacuation area extends from Mile 63 to Mile 78 of the Parks Highway. Between that stretch of highway the evacuation area stretches west to the Susitna River and two miles east of the Parks Highway.

The fast-moving fire started at just 2 acres -- two football fields, minus the end zones -- but quickly exploded out of control as it ran, pushed by swirling winds and high temperatures, through stands of black spruce. Response shifted from one state Division of Forestry wildland fire helicopter and an engine to multiple engines and tankers from West Lakes and Central Mat-Su fire departments to multiple initial attack wildland fire crews from around Alaska, including the Pioneer Peak crew based out of Palmer. Planes and helicopters dropped retardant and water. Multiple aircraft were dispatched to the fire to drop retardant and water on the fire.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is handling evacuation procedures. Information regarding evacuations is available through the Borough emergency operations center at 907-761-3700.

The borough is holding a press conference at noon at the Borough Assembly Chambers at 350 E. Dahlia in Palmer.

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