As Southcentral Alaska winds ease, crews battling Susitna Valley wildfire work to gain control

Intense wind that fueled a Susitna Valley wildfire north of Willow over the weekend, burning dozens of structures, has died down — a “huge” factor in battling the blaze, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry said Monday.

“The fact that the winds have calmed down is going to be a great help,” said spokesman Tim Mowry. “There’s still a huge amount of work to do, but having the winds subside is going to make a huge difference.”

Firefighters worked Monday to contain the active wildfire on both sides of the Parks Highway. The McKinley Fire was estimated at 3,000 acres as of Monday afternoon, said John See, a forester with the Anchorage Fire Department who was also working this week as an Alaska Division of Forestry spokesman.

An evacuation order remains in effect along both sides of the highway from mileposts 82 to 91. Residents who have been evacuated were not being allowed back into the fire area Monday morning, for the safety of firefighters and for the public, authorities said in an update on the state’s fire information website.

At least 50 structures have been lost. The previous size estimate on the fire was about 1,800 acres as of 10 p.m. Sunday. Mowry was not aware of any injuries as of Monday morning.

Alaska State Troopers asked the public to call 907-861-8326 with information about any family members they have not heard from who live in the evacuation area. Troopers urged callers provide the number of people with full names, ages, birth dates, addresses, next of kin and a cell phone number or other contact information.

One lane of the Parks Highway was opened with pilot cars Monday morning between Mile 71 and Mile 99, authorities said. But there was still heavy traffic and long delays, and the road could be closed again at any time, said Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Danielle Tessen.

State agencies urged people to avoid using the highway in the area. Pilot cars were leading 50 vehicles at a time along the 28-mile stretch from Willow-Fishhook Road north to the Montana Lake area, and it was taking 50 cars about an hour to get through, Tessen said Monday morning.

“There is zero visibility, with active flames on both sides of the road,” agencies said in an online post. “Be on the lookout for firefighting personnel and equipment on the roadway.”

Drivers should instead take the Glenn and Richardson highways between Fairbanks and Anchorage, Tessen said.

Chuck Boerger, a retired schoolteacher and summertime semi driver for the last 18 years, was stuck on the south side of the fire Monday with a load of tourist luggage bound for the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. He had already spent two hours stuck on the north side of the fire on Sunday. He said it’s the first time he’s ever been halted on the Parks Highway by a wildfire.

The Alaska Railroad said it has canceled service between Anchorage and Denali National Park.

The McKinley Fire “jumped the Alaska Railroad tracks on Saturday night near ARRC MP 205 and continues to burn on both sides of the tracks,” railroad officials said in an email update.

Evacuation shelters have been established north and south of the Parks Highway closure zone, authorities said. The shelter on the south end is at the Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla, and the shelter on the north end is at the Upper Susitna Senior Center around Mile 98.5.

Volunteers at the American Red Cross evacuation shelter at the Upper Susitna Senior Center said they housed about 45 people inside the shelter Sunday night.

“Only about a dozen were locals who had evacuated,” said Matt Clark of the Red Cross. The rest were stranded travelers who were trying to go south down the Parks Highway.

Five nearby schools — Willow Elementary, Talkeetna Elementary, Trapper Creek Elementary, Susitna Valley Junior/Senior High School and Beryozova School — will be closed Tuesday because of the fires.

The fire started Saturday when wind blew a tree onto a power line near Mile 91 of the Parks Highway, and powerful weekend winds stoked the blaze.

The forestry division is working with the Alaska State Fire Marshal’s Office and Red Cross to confirm the number of structures lost.

Additional resources from the Lower 48 are expected to arrive in Alaska on Monday to help with suppression efforts on the McKinley Fire and others in Southcentral Alaska, authorities said. Ten hotshot crews, two air retardant tankers and four water-scooping aircraft had arrived or were en route.

The McKinley Fire was one of several fires in Southcentral Alaska this weekend amid dry weather and windy conditions. West of the Parks Highway, the Deshka Landing fire threatened cabins on Red Shirt Lake. That fire was about 1,800 acres as of early Monday, said See.

The smaller North Fork fire, estimated to be between 25 and 30 acres, prompted a level one “ready” evacuation notice in neighborhoods north of Homer.

The months-old Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula spread rapidly again on Saturday, prompting an evacuation notice and closing part of the Sterling Highway. In Anchorage, officials warned of extreme fire danger.

Smoke from the fires drifted into Anchorage on Monday, cloaking the city’s view of the Chugach Mountains. As of early afternoon, there hadn’t been any wildfires reported in the municipality, the Anchorage Fire Department said in an online update.

AFD urged people to try to confirm an active fire or smoke column when calling 911, which has received multiple calls reporting the smell of smoke or significant haze.

ADN reporter Jeff Parrott in Willow contributed to this article.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.