Alaska News

Unpredictable Alaska wildfire keeps crews guessing as disaster is declared

WILLOW -- A wildfire that swallowed homes and prompted a 15-mile-long evacuation order Sunday in and around the Southcentral Alaska community of Willow spent Monday sitting mostly stagnant at about 6,500 acres, though it remained dynamic enough to keep emergency responders on the move.

The fire picked up later in the day as erratic winds began whipping it back into action. The Sockeye fire had grown to 8,500 acres as of 9:30 p.m. Monday, according to Vickielee Fenster, a public information officer for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. (A subsequent survey reduced that estimate by about 1,000 acres to 7,585 acres.)

The human cost of the fire also began to emerge, with reports of animals killed in the fast-moving blaze and at least 35 to 45 structures burned. Hundreds of people who fled the fire holed up at shelters north and south of its perimeters, with an estimated 1,700 homes in the evacuation area and thousands of animals displaced by Monday afternoon.

"It's very somber up in Willow right now," said Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member Vern Halter, who lives in the area. "It's a very serious fire."

Casey Cook, emergency manager with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, said at a press conference Monday afternoon that the still-evolving fire had an 18-mile perimeter at that time. Gov. Bill Walker, who also spoke at the press conference, said he would accept a state disaster declaration requested by the borough.

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. Walker took an overflight of the fire Monday morning.

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

Hundreds of responders were battling the blaze, with additional resources on the way Monday evening, according to Tim Mowry, spokesperson with the Alaska Division of Forestry. Still, it was unclear how much -- if any -- of the fire was actually under control.

After being shut down overnight, the Parks Highway was temporarily opened to limited traffic through the restricted area between Mile 66 and Mile 80, a single lane guided by a pilot car as traffic stacked up at each end.

The fire had spent Sunday leapfrogging the highway, sparking burns on both sides of the road, and as the winds picked back up Monday afternoon the main thoroughfare between Anchorage and Fairbanks was once again closed to all but emergency responders.

Lower temperatures overnight helped stem the fire's growth, holding it around 6,500 acres for much of the day. But as the dew dissolved Monday morning and thermometers in the Susitna Valley crawled back up into the 80s, the fire danger intensified.

Cook said the weather was responders' biggest concern. It was predicted to be "hotter, drier and windier" than it was on Sunday, he said, when the fire was able to grow to encompass thousands of acres just hours after it was first reported around 1:15 p.m. on Sockeye Avenue off mile 77 of the highway.

"The fire's moving fast, it's moving hot," said Cook. "It's just ripping through patches of black spruce, at probably 20 or 30 miles per hour."

Resources stretched thin

On Sockeye Avenue, the blaze completely burned through sizable swaths of the surrounding forest. One pocket of black spruce was still burning late Monday afternoon, with windborne embers carrying the flames from treetop to treetop.

Firefighters' efforts Sunday had achieved mixed results.

Still-sheltered pockets of green grass and intact homes sat amid dried puddles of light-brown fire retardant dropped from the sky.

One cabin was untouched despite being flanked by charred, limbless tree trunks. On another lot, what appeared to be the remains of a vehicle burned intensely, throwing off dark smoke.

And on the north shore of Kashwitna Lake, a pile of still-smoking rubble sat atop one foundation.

"That was a big place," said Dan Mayfield, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member from Big Lake, who was touring the area with Cook.

Cook was using a tablet computer for an initial survey of the subdivision, to record which homes and buildings were still standing and which weren't.

The area hasn't been reopened to residents yet, or even to borough damage assessors.

As Cook rolled his truck along a stretch of dirt road, firefighters were spraying water on the vegetation surrounding one unburned home, in case the fire returned.

Meanwhile, Mark Roberts, a state emergency management official and passenger in the truck, checked his phone for updates on another wildfire that started Monday on the Kenai Peninsula. It had quickly grown to dozens of acres, swallowing several buildings in the process.

"It's going to be a long week," Roberts said.

Mowry, with the state Division of Forestry, said that even though additional help was on its way from Outside -- including retardant-dumping tanker aircraft from Canada -- there was still plenty of cause for concern.

"Whenever you get two fires burning like this, it stretches your resources thin," he said, adding that they also needed to keep responders available to jump on initial reports of additional fires.

Asked about efforts to control the Sockeye fire, Roberts responded: "The truth is, this is the kind of fire that's going to have to be put out by rain."

The Division of Forestry said Monday afternoon that firefighters planned to use existing fuel breaks as much as possible, including the tracks of the Alaska Railroad, to the east of the Parks Highway, and the Susitna River to the west.

But there were few natural barriers to the fire to the north or south.

"It's sort of a corridor, a wooded corridor -- a wooded and populated corridor," Mowry said. "There's some roads and some creeks, but this fire's already shown an ability to jump creeks and jump roads."

Though the fire had primarily been moving south, unpredictable winds caused a northbound shift shortly after 7 p.m. Monday, with an evacuation order issued for Sheep Creek Drive, 1 1/2 miles north of Sockeye Avenue.

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 container before bed, in case they had to leave in a hurry.

The couple live about a mile off the Parks Highway at Mile 80 -- another mile and a half from 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."

Seen from an airplane shortly after 6 p.m., the thickest and widest plume of smoke appeared to billow from the northwest corner of the Sockeye fire. A plane swooped into the smoke around 6:15 p.m. and dropped red fire retardant on the area before continuing eastward.

Just north, spots of smoke lingered around Kashwitna Lake amid swaths of scorched land. Wind blew smoke to the southeast. At the south end of the fire area, patchy smoke plumes marked the landscape.

Waiting, hoping

As firefighters patrolled the Sockeye area inside the blocked-off stretch of the Parks Highway, a long line of cars sat at a roadblock at the south end, waiting to pass through.

The closure and the heat made for an excruciating wait for some drivers, like Gary Lyon, 53, who was trying to get to a trailer and cabin a few miles north of the roadblock. At 8 p.m., after being parked for five hours, he was sitting shirtless in his station wagon, the fourth car in a line of traffic stretching nearly a mile back on the highway.

Ahead of him were a BMW motorcycle, a pickup with a water pump in the bed, and a tractor-trailer pulling a running bulldozer. It was left on, said the driver of the tractor-trailer, because the bulldozer has trouble starting.

Lyon, with four other people in his car -- including a 4-year-old girl -- was getting impatient and said he couldn't get any useful information from the state troopers at the front of the roadblock.

"They said if I go through, I'll get arrested," he said.

Inside another vehicle was Amy Demboski, a member of the Anchorage Assembly whose family has three cabins just south of the burn area.

Demboski left the cabins late Sunday night and returned Monday with a generator, a pile of sprinklers and a box of Mountain Dew, but authorities blocked her access.

She arrived in the area Sunday evening after hearing reports of the fire, she said.

"I pulled out my father-in-law's ashes and my mother-in-law's oxygen machine," she said.

Then, she and her father set up hose lines and sprinklers to protect two of the cabins, though they didn't have enough for the third.

After a warning from a state trooper, they left the cabins around 11 p.m., not knowing if the structures would still be there the next day. Demboski learned in a phone call Monday morning from her husband -- an Anchorage firefighter who was sent to work in the area -- that the cabins were still standing.

She said she called Monday to pre-pay her next insurance premium.

Others might not be so lucky. Lori Wing-Heier, director of the state's Division of Insurance, said many properties in the area aren't insured, and having to rebuild completely without any funding could be "catastrophic" for those property owners.

"These people would be homeless and starting from scratch," she said.

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.

Cook said the windswept 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.

The three dozen people who spent the night at Houston Middle School looked shell-shocked and antsy Monday night.

"We want to go home," one man told borough emergency manager Cook.

Through the day, evacuees wondered about the fate of their homes as the borough tried but failed to carry out initial damage assessments by going door to door within the fire perimeter. Crews did save "a bunch of houses" on Sockeye, Cook told the evacuees Monday morning.

Jolanda Wilsack lives just off Sockeye, on West Landlocked Avenue. She got emotional talking about the work crews did to save her home during a phone interview while she waited at the southern roadblock area.

"My property is just gone. The whole neighborhood's gone, but the house is standing," Wilsack said.

Nathaniel Herz and Zaz Hollander reported from Willow. Ben Anderson reported from Anchorage. Reporters Tegan Hanlon and Jeannette Lee Falsey contributed to this story.