Since Aug. 17, the McKinley fire has burned 3,288 acres along the Parks Highway and traveled about seven miles from its suspected starting point near Mile 91.
“Fire progression has stopped,” said Eric Lepisto, a division supervisor at the McKinley fire, and firefighters are working on “more of an interior mission right now." As of Saturday, the fire was 95% contained, fire officials said.
Fire crews are focusing their efforts on structures, identifying remaining hot spots and removing trees that may be hazardous to returning property owners, Lepisto said.
Infrared cameras, hand-held and drone-mounted, are being used to identify dangerous patches of heat in the interior of the fire scar, while other firefighters are using hand tools and hose lines to root out the deep-burning fire.
“It is a slow process,” Lepisto said.
How did it happen?
The cause of the McKinley fire is still under investigation, fire officials said, but they have labeled it “human-caused." That means that officials do not suspect the fire was naturally caused, such as a lightning strike in a drought-stricken forest, but started unnaturally, like a tree falling on a power line.
Fire officials have identified falling trees and deceptively deep and smoldering ash pits as their primary concerns. To date, a dozen firefighters have been burned stepping into ash pits left behind by the McKinley fire.
Ash pits burn deep, some greater than 3 feet, into the dry soil and duff, officials said. Trees seemingly untouched by the fire, burning from root to trunk, have become dangerously unstable.
Firefighters are also concerned that falling leaves may provide fuel to parts of the fire still smoldering.
The area between miles 81.5 and 92 of the Parks Highway remains under a “Ready” evacuation alert.
“Estimated just over $11 million," Liv Stecker with the Alaska Division of Forestry said Friday of the to-date cost to fight the McKinley fire. Flight time for helicopters and planes has been the single greatest expense, she said.
On Saturday, 425 personnel were fighting the McKinley fire, while at its peak, 560 to 570 firefighters were battling the blaze, fire officials said. “Four or five crews went back to the lower 48 yesterday (Thursday),” said Stecker.
"An estimated 35 miles of fire hose, 106 chain saws and 70 pumps have been supplied for the McKinley fire, officials said in a statement Friday. When firefighters are finished using that equipment, it will be sent to caches where it will be “cleaned and refurbished so it is ready for the next fire,” officials said.
Getting back to normal
The Parks Highway is open in both directions with a reduced speed limit of 45 mph through the fire area. Fire officials have asked that drivers use caution as firefighters are still working along the highway.
Power has been restored, fire officials report, and residents experiencing outages should contact the Matanuska Electric Association at 907-761-9300 or visit www.mea.coop.
A two-week burn ban in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough was lifted Wednesday by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Burn barrels and open fires are still not allowed in the borough, although campfires no larger than 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet tall are permitted.
Applying for help
A disaster assistance center at the Willow United Methodist Church was opened Wednesday, and residents affected by the fire can apply there for state financial assistance.
The Disaster Assistance Center is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Sept. 18 at 29286 Parks Highway. An after-hours drop box is available for submitting applications for assistance.