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Strong winds, strained resources test firefighters battling 2 wildfires near Sutton

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: October 18, 2016
  • Published October 17, 2016

MOOSE CREEK — Fire crews battling a roughly 300-acre wildfire near Sutton hoped for calmer weather but planned for trouble as gusty winds turned flame to conflagration in snow-free dry grass.

"The wind is supposed to calm down," state fire information officer Sarah Saarloos said Monday evening. "We are not planning for it to calm down. … We're anticipating possibly more starts, like we had last night."

The wind knocked down power lines across the Valley through the weekend and on Monday. Just over 19,000 of Matanuska Electric Association's members — about 40 percent — lost power during the windstorm through Monday, spokeswoman Julie Estey said.

A sudden blast of high wind on the Moose Creek fire early Monday ignited a fresh area of flames moving toward the Glenn Highway, prompting a brief road closure to get heavy equipment access to fire lines.

A map of the Moose Creek fire near Sutton as of 7 p.m. Monday. (Matanuska-Susitna Borough)

State fire officials say it appears an escaped debris burn started the fire, estimated Monday evening at 328 acres and 22 percent contained after starting Saturday. The Moose Creek fire wasn't threatening any homes by Monday evening.

Meanwhile, a downed power line fire started another 5-acre fire 10 miles away north along the highway Monday afternoon, draining scarce firefighters and engines in a scramble to protect nearby homes. The King fire remained contained at 5 acres by a dozen firefighters peeled off the Moose Creek fire, along with an engine and a helicopter dropping water, Saarloos said.

The new finger of the Moose Creek fire became the priority for the day there, she said. A brief temporary highway closure allowed crews to bulldoze a fire break on one flank of the new burn. Another dozer line flanked another part of the fire.

The concern was the fire could jump the highway, potentially closing the Glenn, Saarloos said. Letting the fire reach the Moose Creek canyon could also give it room to run toward homes in the Buffalo Mine Road area.

A total of 70 firefighters from around the state worked the two Sutton-area fires Monday. That included local state forestry crews, the Tanana Chiefs fire crew, Fairbanks-based smoke jumpers and Alaska Air National Guard firefighters as well as two helicopters. Matanuska-Susitna Borough departments from Sutton, Butte, Palmer and West Lakes are also deployed.

"Basically we've put a call out: we're short on resources, and we've brought in wildland firefighters from all agencies that are able to support us," Saarloos said.

The fire isn't like Alaska's big summer wildland blazes that sent walls of flame rising from burning trees. Instead, the Moose Creek fire is burning through dry grass that ignites quickly but then burns out. Smoke rising off the fire Monday was hard to see from the highway apart from some wispy clouds.

Michael Kutz, a forecaster at the National Weather Service's Anchorage office, said high winds were reported across the Mat-Su, including a 63-mph wind gust at the Palmer airport around 3 a.m. Monday. Winds were expected to slow to 10 mph by Monday evening, however, offering firefighters an opening to make progress.

"In the Palmer-Sutton area, winds will be coming down through the Valley all day," Kutz said. "That should be enough to help them get things under control."

There is also a 60 percent chance of snow showers in the fire area overnight Monday, according to the weather service. Forecasters say less than a half inch of snow is likely to accumulate.

The high winds also downed power lines, which caused outages and started at least one of three smaller fires reported in the region.

The borough's biggest fire department, Central Mat-Su, had responded to 40 calls since early Saturday morning, including 28 grass fires involving downed power lines, according to an online update from Central Capt. Tanya Hightower mid-afternoon Monday. Thirty-one of the calls, which also included a fatal crash on Point MacKenzie Road, came in as simultaneous calls or multiple calls at once.

Gusty winds through the day continued to wreak havoc on power lines, with outages especially heavy in the Sutton, Glacier View, Chickaloon, Lazy Mountain and Trunk Road/Palmer-Wasilla Highway areas. Several schools switched to backup power.

A little over 1,100 Matanuska Electric Association members remained without power by Monday evening, down from 7,700 in the morning, according to an online outage map.

Estey, the MEA spokeswoman, said the sporadic outages were tied to high winds dating back to Friday evening. A dozen crews were working to restore power across the region Monday.

"They're all smaller tree-related outages," Estey said. "Some restoration times have been quick and others have taken a few hours."

The Mat-Su Borough issued a Monday air quality advisory for the Palmer area, effective until winds and dust subside.

"Due to increasing winds and dry conditions, the air quality in Palmer and surrounding areas is unhealthy to hazardous," borough officials wrote.

Saarloos said the overnight fire crew Sunday into Monday also had to deal with two minor new fire starts in the Wolverine Creek area and Farm Loop Road, as well as a larger one spreading from burning debris piles on Plumley Road. That fire had grown to 15 acres by the time crews arrived, but Saarloos said its spread was inhibited by cold conditions and the scene was handed back to the landowner.

Fire crews are urging Mat-Su residents to avoid starting any new fires amid the dry and dangerous conditions in which the Moose Creek fire began.

"One of the things we're asking people is to remain vigilant on reporting any new starts, and delay any burning until we're out of this windstorm — until we see some significant snowfall," Saarloos said.

Asked if Forestry plans to cite anyone for causing the Moose Creek fire, Saarloos said the state fire prevention technician working any investigation is a wildland firefighter who's needed on the ground right now.

"The investigation will continue, but right now all efforts are to containing the Moose Creek fire and preventing any starts from turning into larger fires," she said.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Chris Klint contributed to this report. 

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