Pilot Cars Assist Traffic on Parks Highway

Troopers stop traffic on the Parks Highway Monday morning as part of traffic control along the Parks Highway. (Photo by John Norris - Alaska Public Media)
Troopers stop traffic on the Parks Highway Monday morning as firefighters continued to battle the Sockeye Fire near Willow. Officials shut down the highway in the afternoon. (Photo by John Norris – Alaska Public Media)

Download Audio

Update: 11:25 p.m. Monday, June 15th.

Pilot cars are assisting traffic on the Parks Highway. Incident Management team information officer Sarah Saarloos says as long as the fire is moderate through the night, traffic will be allowed through. Saarloos says the Sockeye fire got big very fast and tomorrow morning at 7 a.m., the Division of Forestry is bringing in a Type One Incident Management team.

She says the Sockeye fire is the top priority in Alaska and the nation. “We benefit by being the first large fire for the summer of 2015 because we’re getting the resources we need. A lot of those resouces will be arriving tomorrow and the next day.” Saarloos said. She said the Alaska Department of Transportation has opened the Hatcher Pass Road. She said tomorrow will be a challenge with low humidity and highs reaching into the mid 80s. Dry thunderstorms are also expected. “It will be a dynamic day for us. Fire crews are aggressiviely working on structure protections within subdivsions and remote cabins within the perimeter. The top priority is to secure the north and south perimeters to prevent spread. Fire crews will be concentrated in those areas. That northern top fire perimeter and the southern bottom. The tip and the tail.” Saarloos said. The Incident Management Team is headquartered at the Houston High School.

Update: 10:10 p.m. Monday, June 15th.

The Parks Highway remains closed from miles 66 to 88. Mat Su information officer Vickie Lee Fenster says officials recommend that residents who live between miles 63 and 78 should evacuate.

Fenster said anyone south of mile 63 should turn back south, those north of mile 88, should turn back north.

Update: 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 15th.

Fire officials are keeping an eye on the north end of the fire as the wind shifts, but don’t have confirmation it’s growing on that side yet. The Parks Highway has been closed for two hours between miles 66 and 80 due to fire activity.

According to the state, as of late last night, there were approximately 25 primary homes and 10 to 20 secondary structures destroyed on the north end of the fire. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has a team that is assessing structure damage today to get a clearer indication of how many homes and structures have been lost.

State fire managers are now battling two major fires near population centers. The Card Street Fire in Sterling has consumed at least six structures and threatens 200 homes. It has doubled in size in a matter of hours and is now 150 acres.

Update: 2:10 p.m. Monday, June 15th.

Over 200 fire fighters are on the ground near Willow, trying to protect homes and property from burning in the Sockeye Fire.

Mat Su Borough officials held a news conference this afternoon to update the public on their efforts.

Casey Cook is Mat Su Borough Emergency Services Director. He calls the location of the fire “very concerning” in an area with both residences and businesses.

“Today’s fire weather is predicted to be hotter, drier and windier than it was yesterday. So that’s our major concern, now we’re fighting a large fire with poor fire behavior conditions,” he said.

Cook says with the evacuation complete, fire fighters have turned their attention to protecting property in the area. He says he knows structures have burned, but can’t say exactly how many. Cooks says it was a dry winter and a dry spring and that means there is plenty of fuel for the fire.

“The fire is moving fast, very hot, it’s just ripping through the patches of black spruce at probably 20 or 30 miles per hour,” he said.

Cook and Mat Su Borough Assemblyman Vern Halter surveyed the fire as it was advancing yesterday. Halter described driving down the Parks Highway as the fire raced above the road, and roared in the ditches. He was choking up as he talked about the impact.

“I know of at least 12 to 15 houses that are lost. A lot of my friends, DeeDee Jonrowe and that whole neighborhood, I used to have a house there. That’s just leveled really to tell you the truth. I think we moved 400 to 500 sled dogs in a matter of two or three hours,” he said.

Halter says Mat Su Borough Firefighters were able to save a lot of houses.

Tom Kurth is the incident commander for the Sockeye fire. He says the fire is consuming structures with some regularity, but not in large numbers at this point. He says wind is the primary enemy of the fire fighting effort.

“It’s a fuels, weather, topography type thing. So we’re in flat land in a lot of that area but a lot of that fuel is continuous. Any place you have that continuous black spruce, you have a very fire prone species, ‘gasoline on a stick’ for more spectacular language… it will carry a fire,” he said.

On a more hopeful note, Kurth says part of the fire is burning toward Nancy Lakes, where it will encounter wetlands that might help slow it’s progress on that end.

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.

Sockeye Fire evacuation area map

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.

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.mSunday June 14.  

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. Sunday June 14.  

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. Sunday June 14.  

The Matsu-Borough reports the fire is now at 1,800 acres.

Update: 8:44 p.m. Sunday June 14.  

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. Sunday June 14.  

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.