HOUSTON -- As thunder and lightning moved across the Susitna Valley Tuesday evening, the uncontrolled, destructive wildfire that's burned through nearly 12 square miles around Willow is now the top firefighting priority in the country.
Hot, dry weather and unfavorable wind forecasts had fire officials bracing for more extreme fire behavior and the potential for more losses from the Sockeye fire.
The fire has already destroyed 50 to 100 structures, fire officials said during a press conference Tuesday at a command center set up at Houston High School. Some of the lost buildings are sheds or other small outbuildings and not homes. At least 25 were homes, according to a statement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency released midday Tuesday.
The fire has periodically closed the state's main highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks and displaced hundreds of people, including many dog mushers.
FEMA, which authorized the use of federal funds Tuesday to help with firefighting costs, estimated that about 1,700 people had evacuated the area. Shelters had moved three times "because of the dynamics of this fire," according to the agency's statement.
Thunderheads began boiling up over the Talkeetna Mountains east of the fire by late afternoon. A passing storm brought good and bad: a sprinkling of rain fell but the large storm cell brought erratic winds that can complicate firefighting.
Lightning also sparked two new fires about 20 miles to the north of the Willow fire near Montana Creek.
By 8 p.m., the Alaska Division of Forestry had received calls reporting flames sparked by lightning and reports of smoke, said Norm McDonald, a Palmer-based fire management officer for the division.
"We're getting calls as we speak about new starts," McDonald said. "The concern is really with the lightning we've had in the last six hours."
He said the two fires near Montana Creek measured about 3 acres each. The closest structure was about a mile away.
The Division of Forestry focused some efforts on extinguishing those fires Tuesday evening, both believed to be ignited by lightning, McDonald said.
"We're fairly confident we can get those contained or controlled tonight," he said. By midnight, the fires were still going, but had not spread, he said.
Other fire starts would have to wait until morning as storms barred some crews from taking flight, he said.
Meanwhile, the storm cell brought a sprinkling of rain to the Sockeye fire but also erratic winds, as expected, said Sarah Saarloos, a public information officer for incident command.
The Sockeye fire was "static" much of Tuesday, giving ground crews a chance to work at fuel breaks on the north edge of the perimeter, Saarloos said. Hotshot crews mopped up hot spots and worked to build fuel breaks to stop the fire from spreading toward homes on West Sheep Creek Drive.
With dry conditions in the forecast for much of the week, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough issued an emergency burn ban order Tuesday, barring all open fires on borough-owned lands and recreational facilities except for covered charcoal and gas grills.
Sockeye fire commanders Tuesday afternoon said there are still many homes at risk on both the north and south ends of the fire.
"We still have a lot of potential for the fire to move," said Tom Kurth, the incident commander in charge of firefighting decisions.
The destroyed structure count is based on a "very loose survey done by drive-by," he said. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough still needs to conduct a more careful damage assessment.
The Parks Highway, closed off and on since Sunday, was open midday Tuesday, with pilot cars escorting traffic stopped at Mile 88 to the north and Mile 66.5 to the south.
It will be at least 48 hours before evacuated residents can return to their homes, Kurth estimated. About 200 people are staying at? shelters. More are with friends or families.
Some 400 firefighters are working on the fire now, along with helicopters making bucket drops and tankers dropping fire-retardant chemicals. Five 20-person crews just arrived from the Lower 48 Tuesday, adding to the 300 people already working the blaze.
Before the arrival of the crews from the Lower 48, the state estimated the fire was costing $251,000 a day for personnel, airplanes and other firefighting tools in the government arsenal. That figure doesn't include the costs of Alaska State Troopers and local agencies that have responded to the fire.
The fire's perimeter now stretches from Mile 78 of the Parks Highway just north of Kashwitna Lake along both sides of the highway and to Willow Creek, where the edge cuts west away from subdivisions, and ends in a tip south of Willow Creek Parkway.
Fire commanders said people should have an easier time getting information about the fire in coming days.
Information about the fire can be found at akfireinfo.com and various Facebook pages. Residents can visit the incident command center at Houston High School or call 907-892-9413 for information. Information about evacuations is available at 907-861-8326.
Saarloos said community meetings are also in the works.
Zaz Hollander reported from Houston and Tegan Hanlon reported from Anchorage.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing