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Neighbors suspect fireworks as state investigates Willow wildfire

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 16, 2015

WILLOW -- Neighbors say people at the property where the Sockeye wildfire started Sunday were using fireworks the night before and then left after flames grew out of control, burning through more than 7,500 acres and destroying 50 to 100 buildings with poor firefighting weather ahead.

On Tuesday morning, an Alaska State Trooper and state fire marshal were at the property where the fire appeared to have started, in the area of West Sockeye Avenue near Mile 77 of the Parks Highway.

Asked about reports from neighbors, the fire incident commander said the cause of the fire remains under investigation and has not been determined. But it's considered human-caused, because there was no lightning striking around Willow Sunday on a 80-degree-plus sunny day.

Part of the fire command's responsibility is investigating the fire and that's what's happening now, commander Tom Kurth told reporters at a media briefing on the fire at Houston High School Tuesday.

"Releasing information at this point is not appropriate," Kurth said.

The fire was reported just after 1 p.m. Sunday. It quickly grew to 200 acres, then 500, then 1,000 by Sunday evening.

Four people living nearby told Alaska Dispatch News the same thing: fireworks all night Saturday, then two big booms not long before the fire was discovered. A neighbor pulled up on a four-wheeler and confronted the people, then called 911 when they left.

Musher Jeff Hemann drove out through fire Sunday afternoon to evacuate with his sled dogs, wife and son Granite. Hemann said he thought of the fireworks as soon as he saw the wall of flame looming over his place off Sockeye Avenue, and then fled 10 minutes later.

"It sounded like someone sighting in their rifle. Boom," Hemann said Tuesday, standing in a log-stripping yard where he works at Nancy Lake. "I could hear it. And then boom."

Another neighbor, Jolanda Wilsack, said she knows she heard fireworks and she knows the fire started where she heard them. And, she said, the people on the property left.

An Alaska Wildlife Trooper patrolling the evacuation area Tuesday said troopers had heard about the fireworks.

"That's what most of the residents in that area were saying," Trooper Thomas Akelkok said Tuesday, as he checked on people who stayed behind on Sockeye Avenue despite an evacuation advisory.

Troopers, however, are not looking into the cause of the fire, which remains under investigation, a spokeswoman said. But the State Fire Marshal's office is assisting the Alaska Division of Forestry with an investigation into the cause, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.

"(N)othing has been confirmed other other than it's a human-caused fire," Ipsen said.

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