WILLOW -- Burned-out Willow residents got more sobering news Tuesday: The Sockeye wildfire has destroyed 55 homes, more than twice an early estimate that surfaced last week.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough released the new information as part of a damage assessment linked to getting help for fire victims. At least 10 of the homes lost belong to dog mushers in what's considered Alaska's sled dog stronghold.
Permanent Willow residents who lost their homes are looking at a tight timeline. They have just months to rebuild before temperatures plummet below freezing.
Among them was Steven Currier, who lost his home near Mile 73 of the Parks Highway -- an area devastated as the fire took off Sunday and torched south behind Kashwitna Lake through dry black spruce to homes and dog yards.
Currier's house burned into the ground.
"It's in a hole. There's nothing even to haul away," he said.
Currier joined scores of locals who came out Tuesday to an open house hosted by fire officials at Willow Community Center. The event linked victims with services ranging from American Red Cross of Alaska case workers to state individual assistance programs to private companies specializing in fire cleanup.
Currier, who's staying in a motor home on a daughter's Wasilla property, was concerned about paying property taxes on a house that no longer exists.
"Twenty-four hundred dollars a year for a burned-out piece of property -- I can't do that," he said.
Borough staff rushed to copy off forms that allow residents to petition for tax relief.
Other Willow residents asked whether it was safe to drink the water -- they were told it was -- and sat down to talk with Red Cross staffers wearing charcoal-blackened clothes.
On Wednesday, Matanuska Electric Association, which provides power to the Willow area, said the fire destroyed 22 meters and another 12 need repair.
It could take up to three weeks before full power is restored, MEA said Wednesday. Members should expect up to a 10-day wait for temporary service.
Fire officials at the open house warned residents returning home to wear heavy shoes, be aware containers holding hazardous materials may have melted and watch for light gray ash that signals hot spots. One resident suffered burns after stepping in one.
Residents also need to be on the lookout for shallow-rooted spruce weakened by burning ground around them, said Greg Arkle, fire safety officer for the team running firefighting efforts.
"They're going to be a real hazard," Arkle said.
Crews "mopped up" within 300 feet of homes in the fire zone, he said, but they may have missed some dangerous trees that otherwise look fine. People on four-wheelers away from roads need to be especially careful. The biggest danger will be if rain softens the ground and winds follow.
Gary Johnston, 59, was one of several people at the open house who said their biggest need in the wake of the fire is "garbage disposal": Hard labor to clear charred remnants of refrigerators, cars, water heaters and other big, unwieldy debris clogging fire properties.
Johnston has a four-place snowmachine trailer with four melted snowmachines inside and a burned-out school bus full of tools.
"I just can't conceive how I'm going to do this," he said.
The fire, while mostly contained, is still active enough flames flare waist-high in places and smoke rises from hot spots.
Firefighters are still working steadily in certain neighborhoods. Crews are "gridding" and walking in tight formation to put out hot spots, but duff deeper than 4 feet in places still holds smoldering fire, said fire public information officer Linda Hecker. She said rain forecast for this weekend should also help.
Fire commanders say the 7,220-acre fire was 90 percent contained as of Tuesday. Crews were working on containment lines near Little Willow Creek along the highway and farther south along Willow Creek.
There were still more than 500 people working the fire Tuesday, but they were leaving quickly as they peeled off to fight fires in the Interior, Hecker said.
A three-person borough team of assessors looked at 337 properties over a three-day period, according to a borough update.
Along with the 55 homes destroyed, they found another 44 properties with major damage to outbuildings ranging from sheds and greenhouses to outhouses. No structures were burned on another 238 properties inside the fire perimeter.
The assessment area stretched from north of Willow at Ringler Circle, east to 2 miles east of the Parks Highway, west to the Susitna River and south to Crystal Lake Drive and north of West Lakeshore Circle.
A preliminary assessment last week put the number of destroyed homes at 26. That number increased because many of the hottest areas weren't included in that survey, borough emergency manager Casey Cook said. Representatives from the borough, state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are going back out on Thursday and Friday to assess the damage.
The fire displaced a total of 800 people, though many have since returned home. An emergency shelter at Houston Middle School has closed. An untold number of fire victims are camping out, living in motor homes or staying with friends and family.
Jennifer Sterling and Todd Smoldon came to Tuesday's open house to collect information for friends busy at their destroyed homes and find out how to help others.
"There are people who lost everything who are home right now digging through the rubble," Sterling said.
She said she wanted to figure out what she could do to help people "because this isn't going to be over in a week."