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Mat-Su

With wind gusts up to 73 mph, Mat-Su firefighters struggle to keep up

Wind blows dust and snow on the Matanuska River in Palmer on Monday. (Marc Lester / ADN)

A flood of cold air draining into the Matanuska Valley has created constant bitter winds, and borough firefighters worked hard Tuesday to keep up, officials said.

"With the high winds out here, it just made firefighting extremely difficult," Ken Barkley, fire deputy director with the Mat-Su Borough Department of Emergency Services, said Wednesday. "We had trees down, power lines down and then structure fires on top of that."

Since Sunday evening, gusts surpassing 50 miles per hour have been blowing through the Matanuska Valley, said Pam Szatanek, meteorologist with the National Weather Service Anchorage office.

The gusty conditions, known as "outflow winds," are caused by cold air that builds up in the Copper River Basin. When a pressure gradient sets up "just right," the air drains out of the basin and directly down the Matanuska Valley, Szatanek explained.

"(The winds) will blow into Palmer day after day," Szatanek said.

The biggest gust, at 73 miles per hour, was recorded at the Palmer airport, she said.

Mat-Su fire crews battled three house fires Tuesday, all of which were exacerbated by windy conditions, Barkley said. Wind both helps ignite fires and makes blazes more difficult to extinguish.

Equipment freezes up in cold weather, Barkley said, and firefighters struggle to stay warm and hydrated when working in lower temperatures.

The first fire, at 8:45 a.m. on Aspen Ridge Road in Wasilla, was in a large log home that firefighters managed to save with minimal damage, Barkley said. No one was injured in the fire, Barkley said.

A second fire at 2:34 p.m. destroyed a mobile home on Northway Lane in Palmer. No one was inside, but a neighbor had called in the afternoon fire and evacuated all the pets inside without injuries, according to Barkley.

The third fire, at 7:14 p.m. on East Barra Loop in Wasilla, started in the chimney of a home and worked its way to the basement.

"Extremely cold and windy conditions made fire suppression impossible," Barkley said. None of the occupants were injured, but the home was a total loss, Barkley said.

A few firefighters had suffered minor injuries, "just from the wind, debris flying around," Barkley said.

All nine fire departments in the borough responded to calls Tuesday. Six worked the fires, and three were on standby to cover the area. Emergency Medical Services were out in force, too, Barkley said, with an ambulance on scene at each fire.

Outflow winds are a weather phenomenon seen every winter in Mat-Su, meteorologist Szatanek said. For this week's event, the worst of the winds is over, but gusty conditions were still forecast for the next few days, she said.

By afternoon, Mat-Su firefighters had battled only one blaze Wednesday, and that fire was contained to the chimney, Barkley wrote in an email.

"We would ask people to be very cautious when using their wood stoves or fire places as the wind may blow the fire back through the chimney into the house.  Do not discard open flames outside until cold to touch and fully extinguished," Barkley wrote.

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