Sockeye Wildfire Threatens Willow

(Photo courtesy of the Mat-Su Borough)
Officials blocking off sections of the road threatened by a fire that spread rapidly overnight, threatening the nearby community of Willow. (Photo courtesy of the Mat-Su Borough)

Update: 10:20 a.m. Monday, June 15.

A quick-moving wildfire started Sunday near Willow has displaced hundreds of area residents and halted travel along the Parks Highway much of last night and this morning.

As of about 1 a.m. Monday the fire was estimated at about 6,500 acres.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough spokesperson Pam Ness says the fire does not appear to have grown much since then.

“The fire laid down last night, pretty much in the same area that it was,” she said.

Ness says the number of affected structures is currently unknown.

Mat Su Borough Emergency Services Director Casey Cook says Tuesday is the earliest residents may be able to return to their homes. Monday morning, the borough started a neighborhood by neighborhood assessment of which homes burned and which are still standing. They will make the information available on their website.

The blaze closed the Parks Highway much of Sunday afternoon and evening in the area as crews worked to slow its progress and protect structures.

Ness says State Troopers are allowing some traffic through the area periodically, but that’s subject to change, depending on fire fighting activities.

“We have AST currently stopping vehicles at Mile 66.5 and then we have pilot cars and AST alternating traffic north and south,” Ness said. “There is talk that the highway may be closed, but they’re gonna keep it open as long as they can.”

Ness says officials have given voluntary evacuation notices for residents between Miles 63 and 78 of the Parks Highway.

“We’re recommending that they evacuate and not go back,” she said.

Evacuation centers are set up at Houston Middle School and Wasilla FishHook Bible Camp. And at the Upper Susitna Senior Center near Talkeetna.

The Matanuska Electric Association has cut power to the evacuation area and the solid waste transfer site in Willow is closed.

Update: 6:15 a.m. Monday, June 15.

The Sockeye fire near Willow has jumped to more than 6,500 acres, consumed structures, closed the Parks Highway and is headed south.

How the fire started has  not been determined yet, but officials say it is human caused.

“We just know it was a human caused fire and it is under investigation,” said Tim Mowry, an information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.

The fire, which started about 1:15 p.m., was in the Crystal Lakes Road area as of midnight, according to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s website.

One fireman has been treated for heat exhaustion, according to the borough.

“The Parks Highway will be opened as firefighting and public safety allow,” the borough said. “Expect periodic closures over the next few days and pilot cars guiding traffic through.”

It covered about 40 acres when authorities were notified.

According to the borough, about 210 residents had signed into evacuation centers.

The blaze was called in shortly after one ‘clock Sunday afternoon, at 40 acres.

By 4:00 p.m., it had spread to 200 acres when the wind kicked up. Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Vern Halter, who represents Willow, had just returned from a survey of the fire area after 9:00 p.m. Sunday evening. Halter spoke from his home near Willow

“I tell ya it’s on both sides of the highway when you cross Willow Creek,” Halter said. “Within a three-quarters of a mile, a mile of crossing Willow Creek, you just run into flames. “Both sides of the highway, there were structures burning, and the intensity, it probably took us a mile and a half, to two and a half miles to get through the main portion, both sides of the highway.

“And then there would be flareups, there would be. almost scare ya when you are looking out…because you can feel the intensity of the heat when you are inside the car with the windows rolled up.”

A voluntary evacuation was called from mile 72 to 77 on the Parks Highway on Sunday afternoon, but the wind pushed the evacuation area south to mile 69 Sunday evening.

Sockeye fire 2 copy

The fire threatens a heavily populated area along Willow Creek Parkway. An incident command center, and a Red Cross shelter, initially located at the Willow Community Center, was moved late Sunday, as the flames crept closer to Willow.

“They’re moving the command center,” Halter said. “The command center and the Red Cross moved to the Willow Community Center, and now they are evacuating this area pretty much and moving every thing to the Houston Middle School. So the Red Cross is moving to Houston Middle School The fire command is staying here locally.”

Halter said firefighters are doing all they can to save homes.

“But there was a firetruck at just about every house that I could see, trying to keep water on buildings and houses, and let the fire pass, and save it. I don’t know, but I’m sure they saved a bunch, but there’s some that they couldn’t either. ”

The area is home to a considerable number of dog mushers, such as Dee Dee Jonrowe and Martin Buser. Halter is also a musher.

“There was a ton of dogs moved, and all of those came out of where Dee Dee Jonrowe lives, up there on mile 71, 72, 73, in there, there was 100s and 100s of dogs moved in about a two or three hour period this [Sunday] afternoon. Dee Dee Jonrowe, and Martin Buser, I saw their trucks. I imagine Martin Buser has 100s of dogs at his place right now. ”

Fire information officer Tim Mowry said Sunday night the Parks Highway would be closed all Sunday night. Mowry said a huge amount of effort is being used to fight the fire.

“We’ve got units, crews enroute to the fire, crews on the fire, we’ve got firefighters from Palmer on the fire,” Mowry said. “We have multiple aircraft, that have been working the fire all day. Three retardant tankers, and four water-scooping aircraft, plus multiple helicopters. We have five Hotshot (firefighting) crews on order from the Lower 48.”

But we basically are throwing everything we can at this fire and we have been doing it since we got the report just after one o’clock” [Sunday afternoon.

The front of the fire was three miles long by Sunday evening, according to reports.

“We are just trying to get a handle on this thing, and it’s been a tough thing to do. It jumped the Parks highway once, and I am trying to figure out if it has done it again.”

A State Trooper road block is set up at mile 77 of the Parks heading South.

Update: 10:18 p.m. Sunday June 14. The Division of Forestry now estimates the size of the Sockeye Fire at over 4,000 acres.

Willow residents from Sharen Road south to Nancy Lake Parkway are evacuating, and many people are stuck on one side or the other of the fire, which has closed the Parks Highway.

Update: 9:56 p.m. Emergency Services Director Bill Gamble reports a voluntary evacuation in effect for Willow, this includes Willow Lakes, Crystal Lakes, Shirley Lakes, Nancy Lake, and more. A new shelter is being set up at Houston Middle School.

Update 9:18 p.m. The shelter at the Willow Community Center is moving to Houston Middle School. Buses are helping transport residents from Willow to Houston, according to the Borough.

Update 8:51 p.m. The Matsu-Borough reports the fire is now at 1,800 acres.

Update: 8:44 p.m. Willow residents living along the Parks Highway from milepost 69 to milepost 77 are notified to evacuate for safety, reports Emergency Manager Casey Cook and Alaska State Troopers. The Willow Community Center is set up as a shelter. Animal Care is on scene to assist with pets. An emergency information numbers is 861-8500.

Update 7:28 p.m. The shelter for people displaced/stranded by the Sockeye fire will be the Upper Susitna Senior Center on Helena Drive, just south of the intersection of the Talkeetna Spur Road and the Parks Highway.