"The Anchorage Hillside could be facing a wildfire disaster this summer," read the headline on a column by Charles Wohlforth in May 2016. If some readers were skeptical when they read the warnings from local fire professionals about the potential for a blaze that threatened homes in the area, they became believers in July, when the McHugh Creek Fire ripped up a mountainside next to Turnagain Arm. Pushed by high winds and dry weather, the fire was only stopped from resting the ridgeline, and racing toward high-density neighborhoods, by the hard work of wildland fire crews — and by Mother Nature, when rains arrived a few days later.
"All of the factors that would fan the flames of a conflagration exist," Anchorage's then-fire chief Denis LeBlanc said about the prospect of a blaze on the Hillside. "It absolutely could happen here."
The McHugh Creek Fire, fortunately, ended up more cautionary tale than disaster. It followed two major fires in Southcentral Alaska in the two years previous, both of which had the same elements: hardworking fire crews preventing greater losses, buoyed by Mother Nature and a good dose of luck.
The Funny River Fire on the Kenai Peninsula burned hundreds of thousands of acres in 2014 near Kenai and Soldotna, but property damage was minimal thanks to fire crews' efforts and some near-miraculous weather patterns that kept the blaze from burning into much more densely populated neighborhoods.
The most destructive of the recent wildfires Alaska has faced was 2015's Sockeye Fire, in which 55 homes were lost when a Willow-area fire expanded to scorch more than 7,000 acres.
The three wildfires have more in common than the way they were stopped: All are believed to have started at the hands of people.
Human carelessness is one of the most common causes of Alaska wildfires, particularly those that threaten property. As our wildfire season begins and residents indulge in a holiday weekend that often includes grilling and outdoor fires, make sure that whatever you do, it doesn't include starting the next fire that threatens homes and lives.
If you're planning to fire up the grill, make sure you have a bucket of water nearby to douse flare-ups or put out smoldering spots if ash falls on the lawn. Don't ever leave the grill unattended, and put ashes all the way out when you're finished cooking — don't trust that they'll cool down safely on their own. If your grill uses propane, make sure the valve on the tank is turned all the way off when you're done.
If you're camping, be very careful with your fire. Keep it small and establish a wide perimeter free of combustible material. If you're in a place with fire rings or other established grills, use them — it's often illegal to start fires elsewhere. When you're finished, pour enough water on it that the ashes are not only cold and damp, they're soaked. In some areas, including throughout the Municipality of Anchorage, open fires are banned, though exceptions are made for portable outdoor fireplaces with screen covers that are elevated well above the ground. Even with those, keep water on hand to douse sparks that may escape.
When it comes to protecting your house, local fire authorities have a wealth of information about keeping your home as safe as possible from the threat of a wildfire. Cut back brush and combustible material from near the house, make sure you have an ample supply of water even if power fails and keep extinguishers on hand for minor fire issues inside and outside the house.
There's nothing that puts a damper on a beautiful Alaska summer in quite the same way as a sky dense with wildfire smoke — or worse, the fear that your house and family could be in danger. Be smart with fire this holiday weekend and throughout the summer, and help keep the sky clear and the neighborhoods safe.