MONTANA CREEK — After aggressive overnight firefighting efforts the Montana Creek fire burning south of the Talkeetna junction has shifted direction, officials said, prompting warnings to area residents to be ready to evacuate if necessary.
Fire officials are also urging people to use caution as high fire danger persists in the region and resources are stretched thin statewide.
“We are in a hot, dry season in Alaska," Stephanie Bishop with the Division of Forestry told reporters Thursday morning. “We are in high fire danger.”
The fire has spread over 250 acres and is located about 2.5 miles east of Mile 98 of the Parks Highway, by Montana Creek Road. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Bishop said, and there have been no injuries and no structures lost. Some vehicles have burned, however, and one structure was threatened Wednesday afternoon, when the fire was first reported.
“The fire is now pushing toward the south and it is torching on the east," the Division of Forestry said in an update Thursday afternoon. "Crews have stopped the fire at Montana Creek Road” and are holding the fire on the east and west sides.
Emergency managers late Thursday afternoon issued a “Level 1: Ready” evacuation alert for residents near Montana Creek, meaning that although an evacuation order had not been issued, they should be ready to leave the area if necessary, according to Stefan Hinman with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Earlier in the day, officials had elevated the alert status, telling residents that they should be prepared to evacuate on short notice.
On Thursday, Mat-Su emergency services director Ken Barkley had said “We do not expect that to happen” but want residents to be prepared. He said the Red Cross is on standby in case a shelter needs to be set up at the Upper Susitna Senior Center, just south of the Talkeetna Spur Road. Residents who have voluntarily evacuated can use the senior center as a gathering point, officials said.
“Our main concern right now is if we have another fire,” Barkley said. “Resources throughout the state are at (their) max right now.”
Bishop said crews’ main objective Thursday was to continue their initial attack and set the fire perimeter, building on efforts from the previous day. The fire is at 0% containment with 90% retardant around the fire, which will help knock down the fire so foot crews can get in and better assess the extent of the fire. Officials do not have the specific direction of the fire at this time, according to Bishop.
Thursday’s fire updates come as a burn permit suspension remains in effect for the Matanuska and Susitna valleys “due to dry conditions, current fire activity and limited availability of firefighting resources,” according to the Division of Forestry. Open fires and burn barrels are banned in Mat-Su, and the burn permit suspension extends through Friday.
Access to Montana Creek Road, which was closed Wednesday evening, remained restricted Thursday. Barkley urged people to avoid the area of the fire for their safety and the safety of firefighting personnel.
“Right now, we feel pretty confident we have a handle on it,” Barkley said. But “with these dry conditions, anything can happen.”
There are currently 130-140 personnel responding to the fire — including ground crews from Alaska and Oregon and aerial assets, like a Canadian tanker and Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawks — though additional resources may be added, Bishop said. Beetle-killed trees are fueling the fire but until crews are able to reach the area of origin, more specific information about what kinds of trees are burning will not be available, according to Bishop.
The National Weather Service predicts the weather in the area will remain sunny and hot through the weekend with highs near 90 and a chance of showers Sunday night. Nightly lows will be around 60. Winds will remain predominantly from the north at 5-10 mph.
Tommy Ferrell, who was traveling down Montana Creek Road on Thursday morning near the Division of Forestry’s command post, said he was headed to his cabin on an unnamed road near the fire.
Ferrell said although he wasn’t at the cabin Wednesday, he had family from out of town staying there.
He said his family members didn’t evacuate, but they were “watching it and could kind of see which way it was going.”
Ferrell tried getting to the cabin Wednesday night but turned around because he didn’t want to get in the way of firefighting operations.
“They got at it right away,” Ferrell said of the firefighter’s attack Wednesday afternoon.
Bishop urged residents to create defensible space around their home to help mitigate the impact of potential wildfires; more information can be found at firewise.org. Anyone who wishes to help or volunteer should reach out to the American Red Cross in Alaska, which will support first responders as well as community members, Bishop said.