Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday issued a disaster declaration for the Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula boroughs to provide aid to those who have been affected by wildfires there.
Five major wildfires burning across the two boroughs — most ignited last week — have consumed thousands of acres of land, closed arterial highways and prompted evacuation orders for nearby communities.
The most destructive of the fires, the 3,753-acre McKinley fire burning between Willow and the Talkeetna cutoff, has destroyed 51 homes, three businesses and 84 outbuildings in its rapid spread, Mat-Su Borough officials said Friday. The Swan Lake fire, which at more than 148,000 acres is the largest of the Southcentral fires, has been burning for almost three months and is now within 5 miles of both Sterling and Cooper Landing.
The disaster declaration makes up to $34,900 in individual aid available to residents whose property has been damaged by the fires, Brig. Gen. Torrence Saxe, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, told reporters on Friday.
That aid can also be used to cover medical expenses related to the fires, according to a statement emailed by the governor’s office.
Additionally, displaced renters can receive grant funding to cover up to three months of temporary housing, and homeowners can receive up to six months, Saxe said.
“Residents and affected business owners will be notified of how and where they can apply for assistance in the upcoming days,” the governor’s office said in an email.
The declaration also activates the state’s public assistance program, which provides funding to repair damaged infrastructure like roads, bridges and utilities.
Both the Mat-Su and Kenai Peninsula boroughs have already issued their own local disaster declarations.
McKinley fire: Learning about destroyed structures, more evacuation notifications
The area most severely impacted by the McKinley fire was near the fire’s origin point around Mile 91 of the Parks Highway, said Kale Casey, a spokesman for the incident management team that’s manning the fire.
The businesses that were lost include the Mat-Su RV Park & Campground and Camp Caswell, a former grocery and general store that has been closed for several years.
The borough began notifying residents of the status of their properties Friday morning at the Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla and the Upper Susitna Senior Center near the Talkeetna cutoff, which have been acting as evacuation shelters.
For many of those who lost their homes, the unwelcome news did not come as a surprise, said Ken Barkley, director of emergency services for the borough. Barkley has estimated the number of evacuees at 350 to 400.
“Most already know, whether it was through pictures — those who have sheltered in place sent pictures to them," Barkley said.
Evacuees are unlikely to be allowed back to their homes until next week because of concerns that wind shifts over the weekend might exacerbate the fire, Casey told reporters Friday.
“Because the evacuees have been notified that their home has been lost does not mean that reentry has occurred. There’s very much a firefight underway,” he said.
Fire managers were preparing for stronger winds, topping out at about 15 mph, that were expected to stoke the fire’s growth beginning Friday evening, but those fires stayed high in the atmosphere rather than blowing through the fire, incident meteorologist Mark Loeffelbein said in a video update Saturday.
Those potential winds prompted fire managers to place communities south of the fire under a Level 2 “set” evacuation notification on Friday, meaning residents should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Those neighborhoods are between miles 79 and 81.5 of the Parks Highway, Alaska State Troopers said.
Homes between miles 79 and 76 have been placed under a Level 1 “ready” notice, meaning residents should be aware that they may need to evacuate.
The Upper Susitna Senior Center and Menard Sports Complex will both remain open as evacuation shelters, Casey said. The American Red Cross initially said Friday morning that it was planning on closing the shelter at the Upper Susitna Senior Center.
The Mat-Su Borough is offering to reassess property values for taxable properties that sustained more than $1,000 in damage from the fire. Property owners have 60 days from the date the fire started to file an application for reassessment.
Officials expect to have a cost estimate of the fire damage by next week.
Five schools near the wildfire that have been closed all week are scheduled to reopen Monday, according to Jillian Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the Mat-Su Borough School District.
The Red Cross is asking for both volunteers and donations to assist residents displaced by the fire. The organization will host free training sessions for new volunteers this weekend at the Menard Sports Complex. Those interested in volunteering should contact Paton Stott at 907-201-2887 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Southcentral fire updates
To the south, the 1,543-acre Deshka Landing fire continues to burn south toward Red Shirt Lake and has moved into the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area, fire managers said. Fire crews have been making progress along the fire’s northern edge, but thick brush and timber has made firefighting along the south slow-going, the Division of Forestry said in an update.
No evacuation orders have been issued, though residents to the east and south of the fire were urged to be prepared for one.
On the Kenai Peninsula, Level 1 “ready” evacuation orders remained in place for neighborhoods in Cooper Landing and Sterling, which bookend either side of the Swan Lake fire.
The Swan Lake fire was relatively dormant for several weeks until the same weekend windstorm that ignited the Mat-Su Borough fires swept it across the Sterling Highway. The fire has grown more than 46,000 acres since that windstorm.
Farther south on the Peninsula, a Level 1 “ready” evacuation order was lifted for communities near the 59-acre North Fork fire, north of Homer. The fire was 90% contained on Saturday.
The larger Caribou Lake fire had grown to about 895 acres by Saturday morning. The fire was 20% contained at that time.
Road access on the highways adjacent to the fires has been erratic. On Saturday, the Parks Highway between miles 76 and 99 remained open to one-way traffic with pilot car escort.
The Sterling Highway between miles 53 and 71 was open intermittently. The stretch of highway between miles 45 and 53 was open only to local Cooper Landing traffic to prevent backups through the community, said Dan Nelson, emergency manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. For traffic updates, check 511.alaska.gov.
ADN photojournalist Loren Holmes contributed to this report from Wasilla.