Firefighters respond to wildfire off of Seward Highway

A 25-acre wildfire began to spread across McHugh Creek about three-quarters of a mile from the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. According to the Department of Forestry, the fire was reported to the Anchorage Fire Department at about 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night.

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Camp volunteer Mike DeCenso was the first to spot the fire and call 911.

“The smoke was coming up through the canyons there, so I watched it and figured out it was a real fire on the ground, so I called 911 and got the fire dispatch and they sent out about eight equipment engines,”  DeCenso said late Sunday morning, as he and reporters scanned the hilltop, where billows of smoke indicated the location of the blaze.

This aerial photo of a 25-acre wildfire burning in the McHugh Creek drainage south of Anchorage off the Seward Highway was taken at approximately 10:30 a.m. (Alaska Division of Forestry photo)
This aerial photo of a 25-acre wildfire burning in the McHugh Creek drainage south of Anchorage off the Seward Highway was taken at approximately 10:30 a.m. (Alaska Division of Forestry photo)

Upon the firefighter’s arrival the fire was about 3-5 acres. DOF firefighters were initially unable to combat the fire due to hazardous terrain, so helicopters and an air tanker began dropping water on the flame Sunday morning.

Chugach State Park ranger Tom Crockett spoke just before noon, standing at the entrance to McHugh Creek parking lot, which was closed to the public and used as a staging point for fire operations.

“..and it [the fire]  is being actively supressed by two forestry helos that are doing bucket drops with salt water from the Inlet. A hand crew is being ordered up from Palmer forestry and should be on site in the next hour or so. They will also bring with them some pumps so they can use the water from McHugh Creek to actively work the flanks of the fire. ”

The fire is actively burning in beetle-killed spruce, much of which is dead and blown down. This combined with the steep terrain had made access to the fire very difficult.

Forestry helicopter dips bucket into Turnagain arm while fighting the McHugh Creek wildfire on Sunday. (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Forestry helicopter dips bucket into Turnagain arm while fighting the McHugh Creek wildfire on Sunday. (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The helicopters put on quite a show for travelers on the Seward highway, and traffic slowed as passersby stopped for photos of the operation. By early afternoon, an air tanker dispatched from Fairbanks dropped retardant on the blaze.

Crockett said the fire does not threaten homes or structures. As to the cause of the blaze:

“Unknown. Haven’t checked the site yet, and I can’t speculate until we actually get up and take a look at the point of origin.”

Update: 07-18-2016 4:25 p.m.

A wildfire about ten miles south of Anchorage is at about 60 acres. State fire officials say the McHugh Fire, which was reported late Saturday night, is burning uphill in difficult terrain. State fire information officer Tim Mowry said they are getting a better understanding of the human-caused blaze.

“It’s not necessarily spreading as much as it is we’re just getting a better look at it and figuring out what we are dealing with here,” Mowry said. A lot of times early in incidents these estimates are rough estimates because there is a lot of smoke involved and you are not getting a good look at the fire. Now we have folks on the ground and in the air, and that 60 acres is our latest estimate.”

As retardant and water drops continue on Monday, three ground crews are working the perimeter of the blaze and cutting a sawline around the area.

The area is part of Chugach State Park, just off the Seward Highway. No structures are threatened by the fire at this time.

This story contains contributions from Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage.