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Fast-moving wildfire advances on Willow as residents flee

A fast-moving wildfire unfurled near the Southcentral Alaska community of Willow Sunday afternoon, putting fire crews on the defensive, destroying homes, closing a stretch of the Parks Highway and displacing hundreds of residents fleeing from the aggressive blaze.

By late evening, all of Willow's roughly 2,100 residents plus those living north of the community were under an evacuation advisory.

A massive plume was visible from Anchorage as the uncontrolled fire blazed through black spruce. Authorities cautioned residents in the municipality as well as those in Mat-Su to expect smoky conditions Monday morning.

The fire was first reported to officials around 1:15 p.m. in the area of Sockeye Avenue, about 7 miles north of Willow just off the Parks Highway. By 12:30 a.m., driven by winds out of the north, the Sockeye Fire had spiraled out of control to more than 6,500 acres, burning on both sides of the highway and prompting a road closure and evacuation notice that stretched for about 10 miles.

The state Division of Forestry reported that the fire was sparked by human activity because there was no lightning in the area. State fire officials could not confirm rumors circulating among evacuees about fireworks.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough Emergency Manager Casey Cook estimated that between 10 and 15 structures had burned by about 10 p.m. Sunday, though he had not yet heard any reports of injuries. The evacuation came in an area that's also a hub for dog mushing and the large kennels that come along with the sport.

The Red Cross was making specific accommodations to help deal with the influx of evacuated animals at the Willow Community Center, where the aid organization had initially established a shelter to house up to 60 people, according to communications officer Beth Bennett.

But the plan changed as the night wore on and the fire continued jumping toward Willow. Those who had already evacuated to the community center were forced to move again, this time to the middle school in the community of Houston, as the evacuation order was widened shortly before 9 p.m.

The expanded notice included a mandatory evacuation from Mile 77 of the Parks Highway south to Mile 69, said Angelina Marsh, a public information officer with the fire's emergency operations center.

By midnight, an evacuation advisory was in effect for three miles on each side of the Parks Highway from Mile 66 to 69.

The Parks Highway, the main road link between Anchorage and Fairbanks, will be closed near the fire all night, Marsh said.

"Do not try to go north or south," said Marsh.

Marsh said the fire was moving northeast and southwest on both sides of the highway. Crews were hoping for the fire to slow its progress overnight with the cooler temperatures and lack of direct sun, Division of Forestry fire public information officer Sarah Saarloos said around 11 p.m.

"But this fire is very fuel-driven," Saarloos said.

People with questions about evacuations were advised to call the Emergency Operations Center hotline at 907-861-8500

People stranded to the north of the highway closure were able to go to another evacuation center at Talkeetna's senior center, Marsh said. She said that the gate at the top of Hatcher Pass was locked, preventing access to Willow from the east. Some people in the area wanted to get across the pass, but the road is too soft and muddy to allow for travel, state and borough officials said late Sunday.

Conditions in the area are similar to those in June 1996 when the Miller's Reach fire burned through 37,000 acres around Big Lake and Houston, destroying more than 400 structures.

Developing disaster

The Sockeye Fire escalated quickly. By about 2 p.m., 45 minutes after officials first received word of the uncontrolled burn, Alaska Division of Forestry spokesperson Tim Mowry said the fire had grown to an estimated 30 acres; by 3:15, it sat around 80 acres. By 3:30, it had jumped the highway.

Then, things got worse. By 5 p.m. it had bloomed to 500 acres. It doubled in size again in just an hour, growing to more than 1,000 acres. It hopped Willow Creek and consumed the western shores of Kashwitna Lake. Scanner chatter suggested crews were continuously pulling back, attempting to stay on the ever-advancing front line of the blaze. It was headed south, in the direction of Willow.

The response grew concurrently. A retardant-dispersing tanker aircraft from Palmer was joined by one from Fairbanks, along with several water-scooping aircraft, according to Mowry. A water-dumping helicopter was assisted by another from the Kenai Peninsula within about an hour of the initial report.

Numerous other agencies were assisting as well. A post on the Matanuska-Susitna Borough's Facebook page read like a shopping list of emergency response equipment:

"The National Guard is assisting with three blackhawks.

"Four Alaska crews are routed to scene.

"5 helicopters. A Type II emergency response team is being assembled.

"5 Hot Shot crews from the Lower 48 have been ordered.

"Anchorage is sending two engines, Chugiak Fire is assisting."

That type 2 emergency response team had been upgraded to type 1 by the end of the night, an uptick in the scale of response and the efforts to manage the fire.

Seeking shelter

By 9 p.m., evacuees at Willow Community Center who'd left their homes only hours before got the order to move again -- this time to Houston, about 15 miles to the southeast, where a new evacuation center was set up in a school.

An ugly brown column of smoke filled the sky overhead.

Willow resident Tam Boeve had evacuated from her home at Mile 74 of the highway. Boeve rushed to help recreational musher Elaine Dinnerford move her 14 sled dogs into Dinnerford's dog truck. Minutes later, Boeve got terrible news.

"My house is gone," she said, holding back tears as she and her family members hurried to get their belongings into vehicles and leave.

Numerous infuriated Willow residents expressed outrage over rumors that the fire was started by someone using fireworks. Several residents of Sockeye, the road where the fire was first reported, said they heard fireworks late Saturday night and Sunday.

"It's frustrating," said Iditarod musher Lev Shvarts, a homebuilder who lives with his wife at Mile 72 of the highway. The couple was heading for a friend's place with their 28 dogs and belongings.

"What are we going to go back to?" he asked, standing in the parking lot of the Willow Tesoro.

There were 10 people at the Willow center at 9 p.m. preparing to leave, as well as horses and dozens of dogs, said Bennett, spokeswoman with the Alaska chapter of the Red Cross.

"We have more animals than we have people," Bennett said in a phone interview.

Bennett said people with dog lots containing 40 or 50 animals needing evacuation had repeatedly called the Willow center.

"It's going to be hundreds of dogs in the long run," she said.

Bennett said neighbors and others comfortable with dogs were assisting with the evacuation of animals. But she urged people who want to help to first coordinate with organizations involved, like the Red Cross, rather than just showing up.

"Make sure you ask some questions before you come down," she said.

Meanwhile, weekend revelers returning home found themselves stranded by the lengthy closure on the Parks Highway, one of the main thoroughfares in a state with precious few roads.

In Talkeetna, a popular summertime tourist destination that sits in the shadow of Mt. McKinley about 50 miles north of Willow, hotels were filling up fast -- just after 7 p.m., a front-desk clerk at the Talkeetna Alaska Lodge described the hotel as "swamped," with only about 10 rooms available. The Talkeetna Roadhouse was fully booked.

Zaz Hollander reported from Willow. Ben Anderson and Nathaniel Herz reported from Anchorage.

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