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Wildfire near Talkeetna Spur Road grows, destroys 1 structure; residents ordered to evacuate

Smoke from the Malaspina fire, taken from South Malaspina Loop south of Talkeetna on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (Stephanie Bishop/Alaska Division of Forestry)

TALKEETNA — Residents of a subdivision south of Talkeetna were ordered to evacuate Sunday after a new fire ignited near the already-burning Montana Creek wildfire and destroyed at least one structure.

Late Sunday afternoon, Division of Forestry officials ordered residents of South Malaspina Loop street and Montana Creek Road to evacuate. The Division of Forestry added Makuskin and Yoder roads to the mandatory evacuation list at 5:19 p.m. on Sunday. The Mat-Su Borough said on Facebook that the Upper Susitna Senior Center would serve as an evacuation center.

At a Sunday evening briefing at the center, Stephanie Bishop with the Alaska Department of Forestry said that a Level-two notification alert had been issued for all residents within a five-mile radius around the fire, and those residents should “be ready within five minutes” to evacuate.

Officials said the fire was estimated at 60 acres and was being attacked from the air and ground Sunday evening.

“Crews are getting help from water scooping aircraft, air tankers dropping retardant, and Blackhawk helicopters dropping water on the fire, which began at 3:30 p.m.,” officials wrote, adding that the Baker River Hotshots and White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack crew had been diverted from the nearby Montana Creek Fire, and smokejumpers were en route.

Also aiding in the effort were Mat-Su Borough engines and water tenders, which officials said are being staged to help protect structures in the area.

The fire flare is centered on the South Malaspina Loop street, in a subdivision in the community of Sunshine off the Talkeetna Spur Road.

The fire was burning north toward Montana Creek Road, officials said in the evacuation order.

“The fire is burning in black spruce and is sending up a large column of smoke,” the Division of Forestry said.

The new fire started within one mile of where the Montana Creek fire has been burning, according to the Division of Forestry.

That fire was 356 acres and 30 percent contained as of Sunday.

The Malaspina Fire as seen from the air on Sunday afternoon, July 7, 2019. (Tim Whitesell/Alaska Division of Forestry)

‘Huge plume’

Casey Jacobs, taproom and tour manager at the Denali Brewing Company about 2 miles west of the fire on Talkeetna Spur Road, stepped out of the brewery around 5:30 p.m. to see a plume of smoke to the east.

“That’s a huge plume of smoke, looks like less than two miles to me,” he said, as sirens blared in the background.

Jacobs said he had seen eight fire trucks heading in the direction of the fire, plus planes overhead. He and the other brewery employees were discussing what to do if they needed to evacuate.

Alaska Division of Forestry crews, helicopters and Mat-Su Borough officials were at the site as of 4:15 p.m. on Sunday.

The temperature reached 90 degrees today in Talkeetna, according to the National Weather Service.

Rick Casillo, an Iditarod musher and the owner of a lodge and camp for veterans called Battle Dawgs, was warily defending his home and kennel just after 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Alaska Division of Forestry vehicles in front of a home with smoke from the Malaspina fire rising in the background on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (Brentwood Reid/Alaska Division of Forestry)

Casillo’s home is located between where the Montana Creek fire is burning and the new blaze.

He hasn’t been evacuated yet but said he and his dogs are ready to leave if the wind changes.

“We’re staged, ready to go," he said by phone Sunday. "I have 1,000 gallons of water in tanks.”

Casillo has brushed close to fire disaster more than once this week already. First, the Montana Creek fire burned within a mile and a half of his home.

Then, on Saturday, a generator and battery bank caught fire on his property. He was able to extinguish it himself but said it felt like a very close call.

Casillo described the scene unfolding in his neighborhood Sunday evening as he watched a plane douse the newly burning fire with water.

“You can’t panic,” he said. “You have to stay methodical, plan ahead and just be prepared.”

Then he politely asked to get off the phone.

“I gotta go,” he said. “This is getting closer to me.”

‘Wall of fire’

Fred Nugent said his cabin on Yoder Road was saved by quick thinking and airplanes.

“It was like a wall of fire”, he said of the flames that leapt up a hill towards his cabin.

The two gentlemen who were staying at his place this weekend immediately started cutting down trees that were near the log structure, trying to remove anything that would burn.

Once firefighters arrived, he said, they connected a hose to a well at the cabin and immediately started pushing the fire back.

“And then the planes came,” he said. The cabin was saved.

Nugent blamed the rapidly spreading fires near Montana Creek and Yoder Road on “too much fuel in the woods.”

He said spruce beetle kill has left forests of dead trees near his cabin.

“The last fire looked like an A-bomb went off,” said Nugent of the Montana Creek Fire last week. He watched what he called a mushroom cloud erupt from the forest, burning what he thought were highly flammable trees that had been left by the spruce beetles.

“Everyone wants all (the dead trees) gone,” he said, but isn’t sure how to go about removing such a large part of the forest.

Jeff Parrott reported from the Susitna Valley and Michelle Theriault Boots reported from Anchorage. Matt Tunseth also contributed.