Around 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, as the Zircon fire on the Anchorage Hillside was just starting, my wife and I were driving up Rabbit Creek Road, returning in our camper from an overnight stay in Sutton. As we approached Goldenview Drive, black smoke caught our attention, and our concern grew as we turned north on Goldenview and headed for our home on upper 142nd Avenue. We realized the fire was close and in the direction of our home. After a red flag weekend, we knew the situation could be serious.
The follow-up article published in the Daily News the next weekend, “With conditions primed, Anchorage’s Hillside stares down a long-running wildfire threat,” offered valuable history and perspective on the fire. It included the concern of Assistant Fire Chief Alex Boyd, who was also headed toward the fire probably at the same time. He told the ADN, “I was sure this was it … The conditions were aligned.”
We shared that concern. But that’s where our story — and neighbors — begins to differ from the one readers found in the paper.
Our 30 homes, like many other small, developed areas on the Hillside, are in an isolated area, dense with trees, with only one road into the area that would serve for emergency access and evacuation routes. That night, with growing alarm, I realized this fire was located immediately to the south of our homes through the woods, and upwind from our only route out. This was a scenario our community wildfire drill had contemplated as part of our Firewise and Ready Set Go training. We knew this was dangerous and we could be trapped if the fire was not contained. It was time to be “Set” and ready to “Go.” But we would never hear those instructions.
As I was loading our critical documents, pictures, medications, cat food and finding the cat crate, while checking online for any information about the fire, I had to push away my growing frustration that again, public-agency communication with the community was missing. As we activated our neighborhood phone tree to ensure everyone was aware of the fire and preparing their “Go” bag materials in case we had to evacuate, it seemed that we were left to search social media, call our friends and review news sites trying to find any timely, authoritative and helpful information. Yet for the first 90 minutes as the fire burned, with the smoke transitioning from a structure fire to the color of a wildfire in the woods, there was none to be found.
While the Anchorage Fire Department and an impressive air and land multi-agency response was busy fighting the fire — Thank you for an amazing, coordinated effort! — we were busy doing our part to be ready to evacuate if needed and follow any instructions on where to go and how to get there. Some didn’t wait. An elderly resident got a ride to a friend’s home, another family sent their kids to stay with friends since their house was the first in the line of our homes beyond the end of Zircon Circle.
While we prepared and waited, a few Facebook posts from friends showed us pictures from a better vantage point of the trees burning. We heard of fire spotting downwind less than a quarter-mile away. A friend said there was an evacuation underway on an adjacent street. This was serious. Our years of training included learning about incidents in other states where an organized, rapid evacuation can save many lives, and that at some point, residents should or may be forced to shelter in place, in lieu of evacuating, taking a huge additional risk of having their structures ignite while hunkered down.
I’ve had a couple people point out that Anchorage uses Nixle for providing alerts and that there was an alert that went out early in the fire. But I’ve seen that advisory, not alert, the only one issued that night, that noted only that there was a residential fire and that “citizens remaining in the area are hampering their effort s…” So, were we supposed to stay, or go? Was Boyd right, that “… this was it …” We didn’t know.
How did we eventually get any information about the fire? I was relieved to finally find the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Forestry Facebook post that was being updated. Their first post was at 9:30 p.m. but there was no way to know they were the ones reporting on the fire and I only found it much later as the DNR news started to be shared by others about 10:30 p.m. I continue to be surprised that searching Facebook, of all places, was the best place to find authoritative information about community life-safety news.
How could this have been handled differently? First, update plans to inform the public with clear, timely, authoritative emergency news; including where that news can be found. (This applies to all types of events, and maybe we can do better than Facebook.) Second, the AFD needs a public information officer or to coordinate with the Anchorage police to share community information. Third, the city and AFD need to fully implement the Firewise and Ready Set Go community programs and use them in an emergency, coordinated with the state, when there are red flag days and an active fire. Finally, the city and Alaska Legislature need to address the continued delay in funding an updated Community Wildfire Protection plan.
With these four areas addressed, we may not avoid a wildfire, but we will all be better prepared to reduce the damage of a fire, protect critical access and egress routes and be ready to evacuate when necessary. Anchorage doesn’t need to relearn the lesson of a poorly organized, hasty evacuation that could end in the loss of many lives, similar to the events on the Camp Fire in Paradise, California in 2018.
Ky Holland grew up on the Hillside and is chairman of the Rabbit Creek Community Council Resilience Committee. These opinions are his own and not the committee’s.
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