Alaska News

Backfiring pickup sparks 'insane' string of Mat-Su wildfires

A single vehicle started a series of Mat-Su wildfires that kept crews across the region busy for hours Thursday afternoon, Mat-Su fire officials said.

Ken Barkley, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough deputy director of emergency services, said the first fire near Hemmer Road in Palmer was reported at about 2:30 p.m. Another was soon reported near Colony High School, followed by two more in the Big Lake area.

"We were chasing fires all the way from Big Lake to Palmer," Barkley said. "We had four fires going on at the same time — it was absolutely insane."

Each of the fires burned roughly one-tenth of an acre, Barkley said. A total of 25 to 30 firefighters, from area fire departments as well as the Alaska Division of Forestry, responded to the calls and had all of the fires under control by about 5 p.m.

Authorities ultimately tracked the wildfires' source to a white Chevrolet pickup.

"It was actually backfiring and causing the fires, is what we found out," Barkley said. "(Alaska State Troopers) finally caught up to the vehicle."

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters confirmed the traffic stop, which occurred on Seldon Road.

"We did make contact with the vehicle but as far as we can tell it was not criminal," Peters said in an email. "The driver wasn't cited."

Although vehicles can cause wildfires through backfires, as well as with heat from their catalytic converters when drivers pull over, Barkley said that "we've never had four in a row."

[Trial begins for couple accused of starting destructive Susitna Valley fire]

Thursday's incident is a reminder for Mat-Su residents to be aware of the potential for early-season wildfires, according to Barkley, as underbrush dries out after spring breakup and becomes combustible.

"The conditions are just perfect for a fire to take off in the low-lying ground," Barkley said. "Those fires, with a little bit of wind last night, were moving pretty quick so we had to hit them hard and fast."

The fires occurred the same day that a wildfire closed the Seward Highway south of Anchorage for a couple of hours.