A community meeting at Houston Middle School drew more than 200 people of all ages on Wednesday evening. Matanuska Susitana Borough officials, along with the state’s incident management team, were there to answer questions from burned out homeowners as to what’s next.
A curtain down the center of the school gym separated those at the meeting from Sockeye fire evacuees who were living in the Red Cross shelter located at the school.
The curtain did little to drown out the sound of a basketball bouncing and doors slamming on the other side, although meeting-goers were quiet and respectful, while a roster of state and local fire officials explained what their jobs entail, and how they are working with the fire response team to get the fire contained and ultimately put out.
That objective may be a long time in coming. Russ Long, fire operations section chief from Fairbanks, who arrived on scene Monday, spoke about the tactics and strategy of fighting the blaze:
“You can’t approach it from the heel and just work one side or the other. This is one, because of the homes inside, the infrastructure, we have to fight it from the inside out and from all ends.”
Long said crews are launching a two punch attack from within and without the fire perimeter
“We have firefighters in all geographic locations around the fire. And they are currently doing multiple things. They are inside the black around your homes and in your neighborhoods working hard from your structure moving out.. getting in hose with water tenders, drafting out of the lakes, getting water from wherever we can bring it in fire engines. And then we work from the structure moving out, taking away all of the heat, so that when trees fall over they won’t torch and make other embers and get near other homes and then catch a deck or firewood and cause more problems.”
Long said, conditions look better than they did when he arrived. The Sockeye fire gained less than fifty acres on between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.“But don’t mistake that for the fire is almost out.” he said. Looks can deceive, and he commented that Alaska fires go underground and smolder, even when appear to be out.
Crews will be working from within to locate those smoldering areas, Tom Kurth, incident commander, said. He said 500 people are working on the fire’s interior at present
“But we need to be able to work inside this fire perimeter with a minimal amount of interference,, and that is why we are holding on to this evacuation order. Now, first we will try to open up some areas up, such as the Fishhook Road area and the North and South of the fire perimeter. So we’ll shrink this evacuation area down here shortly. ”
Kurth says fire officials are working with state and local law enforcement to maintain the evacuation order.
Casey Cook, Mat Su Borough emergency services manager, said the Borough started neighborhood damage assessments on Wednesday. He told homeowners that they can leave their phone numbers with a list of Borough property tax id’s he provided at the meeting, so that the Borough can call each homeowoner back and tell them whether their house is still standing.
“Cause that’s really what I want to get out as soon as possible to you folks, so you can start the recovery process. I’m having a meeting with the state of Alaska public assistance and individual assistance tomorrow (Thursday) morning. Those are the groups that run the recovery funding, and how that works.
And so, as we go, and we’ll have some more community meetings, and as those start to take shape we’ll have disaster recovery centers and you can come in and fill out the applications.”
A question and answer session followed the informational portion of the meeting. To one man’s complaint that the Borough process is taking too long, Cook responded
” I’m not going to risk firefighters lives to tell you if your building is still standing. That’s what it comes down to. When we get the information to give you if your house is still standing or not, I will call you to tell you that’s happened.”
And the big question? What caused the fire? Tom Kurth said, details about an investigation are confidential at this time, although , to questions regarding fireworks, he answered, “we are focused on that very thing.”
Officials say that 120 more firefighters are expected to be on the ground by Thursday. I’m Ellen Lockyer