Big Lake recognizes 20th anniversary of Miller’s Reach fire

A Big Lake ceremony on Saturday will highlight a landmark event.

Twenty years ago this month, residents of Big Lake woke to evacuation orders in one of the most devastating wildfires in Alaska’s history. The Miller’s Reach fire, named for the street of its starting point, jumped from seven acres to 37,000 acres in a matter of days, destroying hundreds of homes in its path.

Miller's reach fire which occurred June 15, 1996 (File photo courtesy of Alaska Center for Resource Families)
Miller’s reach fire which occurred June 15, 1996 (File photo courtesy of Alaska Center for Resource Families)

Radio reports crackled as word of the fire reached news outlets on June 3, 1996. The fire started in a subdivision near Houston. Although fire crews stopped it’s progress the first day, wind and weather conditions blew it up again the following day.

The Miller’s Reach fire raged from Houston down to Big Lake, then toward Point Mackenzie, sparking national news coverage, and dominating local reports for weeks.

The Millers Reach fire was a first in many ways. Although the size of the burned acreage caused by the fire’s intensity did not set records, the fire was the first major urban interface blaze faced by Alaska fire crews. Shifting winds defied firefighters efforts to predict its course, as it jumped from 4 to over 30 thousand acres in 3 days.

Miller’s Reach was declared the number one federal disaster priority for that year, prompting a disaster declaration from President Bill Clinton. The fire exhausted local fire surpression capabilities, and a score of Type 1 wildfire crews were brought in to help contain it. In the end, Millers Reach fire destroyed 454 structures, caused millions in private property losses, and cost $16 million to fight.

Norm McDonald, a fire management officer with the state division of forestry, said the scale of destruction caused by that fire has no match in the state’s history. In retrospect, the fire did open people’s eyes to the importance of creating defensible space around homes in the event of wild-land fires. Preparations for safety will be one of the theme’s at this weekend’s commemorative event in Big Lake on Saturday. Responders and citizens who worked the fire will be on hand to share their stories, and a bronze plaque honoring the firefighters will be dedicated.

The Big Lake ceremony will be at West Lakes Fire Station 81 and Big Lake Library at mile 4 Big Lake Road on June 11, 2016 from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. The dedication of a bronze plaque will be at 1:00 pm.