Skip to main Content
Mat-Su

Governor’s disaster declaration over Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula wildfires opens up aid for residents

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.

Trees burned by the Swan Lake Fire alongside the Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing, Alaska on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)
A car is burned Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 in Willow. The property was destroyed on Sunday by the McKinley Fire, which burned so hot that it melted the windshield in the car. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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.

Alaska Team Drone Footage of the McKinley Fire Aug 23 2019

#McKinleyFire Watch this short but very informative drone footage by one of the BLM Alaska Fire Service UAS Drone Operators of the impacted area. We have been talking for the past several days about the high number of fire weakened trees, the mosaic pattern of the burn, the way that thick pockets of black spruce burn at a very high intensity, and how the aspens and birch stands often resist fire or burn less intensley. You'll see several houses that were saved by firefighting efforts and one structure that was completely destroyed. Firefighters, in conjunction with local agencies, worked diligently to perform a multitude of tasks at hand in their effort to protect homes and properties in the area, secure the burned area, and ultimately contain the wildfire. Crews continued mopping up and falling hazard trees around structures as they work to stabilize residential areas. Matanuska Electric Association utilized lift trucks, heavy equipment, and fallers to safeguard the power lines from fire-weakened trees and other hazards as they are in the process of reenergizing the main electrical lines. Dozers and crews built containment lines around the fire perimeter, while also dealing with spot fires and flare-ups. Two National Guard Blackhawks (UH60 Helicopters) dropped water to help cool areas of concern. The McKinley Fire did not increase in size, however active fire behavior was observed with an increase in open flames, tree torching and smoke output. An incredible amount of fire-weakened trees (both burned and unburned) creates a very dangerous working environment for firefighters while also impacting roads, the railroad and power lines. Extremely dry duff layers and a lack of crews is contributing to a slow mop up where fuels are resistant to being extinguished. Three more crews are expected to arrive today. Ample firefighting resources will be available to respond to any increase in fire behavior from the incoming weather predicted for this weekend. A cold front is expected to move into the fire area this afternoon ushering in clouds, lower temperatures, higher humidity, and a slight chance for light rain Friday evening. By Saturday morning, winds will increase to 15 mph out the north/northeast with party cloudy to mostly sunny skies, highs in the upper 70’s, and minimum humidity around 30 percent. Clouds are forecasted to move into the area Sunday bringing cooler temperatures and the potential for scattered showers. A warming and drying trend will begin Monday through midweek as a high pressure moves into the area.

Posted by Alaska DNR- Division of Forestry (DOF) on Friday, August 23, 2019

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 paton.stott@redcross.org.

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire rises over the Kenai Peninsula near Sterling, Alaska on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)

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.

Related stories:

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments