WILLOW — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough declared a disaster emergency Tuesday over multiple wildfires that have spread throughout the borough since Saturday, the largest of which destroyed dozens of structures and forced the evacuation of some Willow-area residents.
“The two largest, the McKinley and Deshka Landing fires, driven by strong winds, combined have engulfed more than 5,000 acres, damaged homes, property, disrupted communication, delayed travel, and harmed wildlife,” the borough said in a statement.
Borough mayor Vern Halter said the declaration acts as a request to the governor for an additional emergency disaster declaration from the state, which would free up federal assistance funds.
“There’s a huge amount of money that’s been spent right now to contain this fire, and this opens the door way beyond the borough’s means,” Halter said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency late Monday authorized the use of federal money to help with the costs of battling the McKinley fire, the agency announced Tuesday. That allows for reimbursement for firefighting as well as $454,432 in mitigation assistance for Alaska.
The McKinley fire, which is burning north of Willow on both sides of the Parks Highway between miles 82 and 91, had destroyed at least 50 structures by Monday night, authorities said. On Tuesday, state forestry officials estimated 50 to 80 structures have been lost in the fire.
Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry, told the Associated Press the cause of the fire was under investigation. Initially, fire managers believed it started when strong winds caused a tree to fall onto a power line.
The fire had grown to more than 4,000 acres by Tuesday evening, prompting evacuations in nearby neighborhoods.
The evacuated residents likely won’t be able to go back to check on their homes and properties for at least another four to six days, according to operations chief Karen Scholl, who spoke at a community meeting in Willow on Tuesday afternoon.
Fire managers were looking for a way to move the Parks Highway closure points so that residents who are not in the evacuation zones but unable to access their homes because of the road closure can get into their neighborhoods, said incident commander Norm McDonald. McDonald said those moves may not happen until Wednesday, though.
Authorities on Tuesday began assessing the burn damage to structures that were caught in the fire, working from the north end of the fire southward, said Rich Boothby, the Alaska state fire marshal. By Tuesday afternoon, they had reached mile 88.
“We’re probably two days away from having that compiled,” Boothby said.
The Mat-Su Borough will notify residents whose houses have burned, said Ken Barkley, director of emergency services for the borough.
Firefighters had also received reports that the fire had traveled beneath the Alaska Intertie transmission line connecting Railbelt communities and had begun assessing the situation.
On Tuesday afternoon, a task force was working to protect structures and attack hot spots along East Swamp Robin Road. Just east of the fire’s path, a home with a neatly manicured lawn stood untouched by flames.
“They did it right,” said Jess St. Laurent, a firefighter and medic with Chugiak Volunteer Fire & Rescue. She pointed out how the homeowner had kept trees and brush away from the home. Looking at the home, it would have been impossible to tell a fire had burned through the area — except for the smell of smoke and the occasional sound of falling trees.
“The extreme fire behavior at Swan Lake was comparable to here,” St. Laurent said. She said she spent six weeks at the Swan Lake fire this summer.
“Our state is blowing up this year,” she said.
Jason Kohler, an Anchorage Fire Department firefighter with 27 years of experience, agreed. “It’s not normal,” he said, “not in August."
The Mat-Su Borough School District canceled school for the remainder of the week for five schools near the fire: Willow Elementary, Talkeetna Elementary, Trapper Creek Elementary, Susitna Valley Junior/Senior High School and Beryozov School.
On Tuesday, the largest amount of active fire and smoldering appeared to be near miles 84 and 85. Trees with burned trunks had fallen across driveways and power lines. Thick white and gray smoke billowed off of the dry forest floor, signs that the record heat and drought conditions were only helped the fire race south in the high weekend winds.
Farther north, fire hoses unattached to a water source or engine had been left around a home that looked to have been saved earlier in the weekend. Completely destroyed outbuildings just feet away were left to smolder in ashes.
“Everything is burning in the surface and subsurface layers. The fire is burning deeper and it’s making it hard for mop-up,” said Josh Leutzinger, another firefighter with Anchorage Fire Department.
Leutzinger said the fire was at its worst Sunday. The aftermath in some areas, where there was nothing more than gray ash and black tree stumps, looked like a “moonscape,” he said.
To the south, 5 miles west of the Parks Highway near Mile 68, the Deshka Landing fire sat at 2,217 acres Tuesday afternoon with little change from Monday. Fire crews were working to contain the eastern edge of the fire, which was about half a mile from cabins on Red Shirt Lake.
No evacuation notices had been put in place for the Deshka Landing fire as of Tuesday afternoon.
Barkley said firefighters were stretched among 15 separate fires — 12 wildfires and three structure fires — within an eight-hour time span Saturday, when the McKinley and Deshka fires started.
Most of those fires were kept small, Barkley said, but strong winds whipped the two fires near Willow beyond what the borough’s limited firefighting resources could handle. Firefighters from around and outside Alaska have been battling the blazes, with at least 10 more crews on the way from the Lower 48, authorities said.
Halter, the borough mayor, said he had not been in contact with the governor’s office about whether or not a state declaration was in the works, although Gov. Mike Dunleavy came to the borough to see the fire area Monday.
[App users: View the Mat-Su disaster emergency declaration here.]
Madeline McGee reported from Anchorage. Jeff Parrott reported from Willow.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of fires that firefighters responded to Saturday.