Sockeye Fire Continues to Burn; Walker Declares Disaster

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The Sockeye Fire near Willow is now the state’s number one fire-fighting priority. Governor Bill Walker personally viewed the burned area by air on Monday, while forestry officials are bringing in help from the Lower 48 and British Columbia. Meanwhile, about 50 people in a Houston shelter are waiting to find out if they can go home again.

Sunday’s initial response to the Sockeye fire has already cost the Matanuska Susitna Borough $48,000. That was spent before midnight Sunday, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough manager John Moosey, who said Monday that the borough has requested a disaster declaration from the state.

Governor Bill Walker, fresh off a flyover of the fire area, said in Palmer: “I’m accepting it today. We’ll use the steps that are available to me and make this a declaration of disaster.”

Gov. Bill Walker briefed reporters on Monday. (Photo by Eric Keto - Alaska Public Media)
Gov. Bill Walker briefed reporters on Monday. (Photo by Eric Keto – Alaska Public Media)

There’s no counting the cost of this fire, which is zero percent contained. Some residents don’t know if their homes survived the flames.

Mat-Su Borough Assembly member Vern Halter also briefed reporters, saying “it is a very serious fire.”

During Sunday’s hectic initial response to the fast spreading fire, some neighborhoods closest to the blaze were voluntarily evacuated before the Parks Highway shut down. Willow’s Frank Cross was one of the evacuees:

“I saw the fire, and I’m going, man the wind is blowing 35 miles an hour, and the fire’s is five miles north of me, and I thought, I’d better keep an eye on this thing, and I’m looking at it jump at quarter mile intervals because of the wind.

It flamed up behind Kashwitna Lake back on Sockeye and it jumped a half a mile out by the road, and jumped over the road, and it looked like it was jumping a half a mile, a quarter at a time. the wind is pushing this thing.”

Cross spent the night in a Red Cross shelter hastily set up at Houston Middle School. As did Greg Hatfield, who made a run from the fire with his dog.

“I just tied him up over there,” Hatfield said.

“I gotta go round up a dog bowl, something to water him with, feed him with.

Was it just you and your dog?

Yep everything we had pretty much went up in flames.

You sure of that?

Yup. we was one of the first ones. We saw the helicopter going around, we seen some smoke, But there was nothing we could do. About a half hour later, offices started hollering, get out of here, get out of here. ”

Gordon Bovey could see the fire three miles away from his home on the Parks Highway:

“We were outside working and noticed a plume of smoke to the north. My wife called 911 and they had just dispatched the fire department. So from there, our day kind of turned. We realized pretty quickly it was heading our direction. So we started packing up our pets. One of our neighbors was a firefighter, so we had to help him pack up his 25 sled dogs. We packed up our pets and shortly thereafter the Troopers came through and asked us to leave. ”

Meanwhile, Willow dog mushers’ animals were taken to Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake.  Monday afternoon,  handlers were moving dogs, watering dogs, feeding dogs,  dogs dogs dogs. But Buser was taking it in stride, while giving a busload of tourists a tour of his kennel:

“We do daily tours.  They’re gonna come out of the movie and into the dog lot, ” he said.. “Which is four times normal size.”

The fire could hurt the Mat-Su tourist industry, officials said Monday at a Palmer press conference.

Casey Cook, Borough Emergency Services Manager, has asked evacuees to wait at least until Tuesday to attempt returning home. Cook said Monday that the Borough has started damage assessments in individual neighborhoods to determine who’s homes are still standing.