Rain dampening McHugh Fire, officials say prospects are good

The McHugh Fire as of about 6 pm on July 20, 2016. (Courtesy of Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team)
The McHugh Fire as of about 6 pm on July 20, 2016. (Courtesy of Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team)

UPDATE – July 21 – Light rain in Anchorage this morning is helping stop the spread of the nearly 850 acre McHugh Fire. Crews are able to get close to the blaze and start building a fireline near the Seward Highway. The fire is considered five percent contained.

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UPDATE – July 21, 10 AM –  It’s raining in Anchorage, and fire officials say prospects are looking good for the 842-acre McHugh Fire in Chugach State Park.

The five days of predicted rain are improving the situation and the current perimeter likely won’t change much, said Alaska Wildland Fire Program Manager Tom Kurth during a morning press briefing.

“Five days is a good amount… We’re gonna see some radical diminishing of the fire behavior that we’ve had here. I’m going to say, again, that the picture here is pretty positive.”

The forecast also allows the five hotshot crews from Tahoe and the crews from Alaska to take offensive measures against the fire, he said. Until now they were focused on defending structures. With the rain, they can start fighting the blaze directly. The fire is still over a mile away, across multiple ridges, from both the Rainbow Valley and Potter Creek subdivisions.

Though the rain is good for the fire, Kurth said the loose soil could cause rocks and other debris to fall onto the Seward Highway.

“Temporary road closures are a possibility. [Department of Transportation] is ready to deal with that. We find that the traffic backs up there pretty quickly while they’re trying to do that.”

The winds are blowing smoke into Anchorage, and there is a moderate air quality warning in effect for Anchorage and Eagle River. The weather will likely prevent any over-flights and helicopter drops on the fire area today.

ORIGINAL STORY – As of Wednesday evening, the McHugh Fire was estimated at 842 acres, and 250 crew members from Alaska and the Lower 48 were working on stopping its growth.

Local meteorologists told a crowd of nearly 200 community members gathered at South Anchorage High School that the good news is the weather is improving. By early Thursday the warm, dry spell should give way to light rain. Though they only expect 0.02 to 0.05 inches of precipitation Thursday, even that amount will help dampen fuels. Forecasts call for heavier rains all day Friday and more on Saturday.

The shifting winds, from NW to SE, will also help dampen the fire, though smoke will likely blow over the Anchorage Bowl.

Alaska Wildland Fire Program Manager Tom Kurth said he’s confident that given the favorable conditions, the fire will not get worse. It needs to go up and down about two more mountain ridges before either Potter Creek or Rainbow Valley subdivisions will be evacuated.

Resident Jason Hipszer attended the meeting. He has lived in Alaska for 37 years and moved to Potter Creek seven years ago. He said he’s not too concerned about the fire.

“I feel pretty good. I’ve lived up here a long time and seen a few fires,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys up there right now [in Potter Creek]. Lots of crew up there. And I’m ready to go. I know the way out, and we’ve got our passports and our wallets, so I guess we’re okay.”

He and his family have made their house defensible by surrounding it with gravel and keeping the lawns green. But he still wanted to know what government agencies had in mind in case the fire did hit the neighborhood. After listening to an hour-long presentation by city and state officials, he felt confident.

“It’s good to see they’re working together. They’re communicating. For us living there, I feel seeing that is a bit comforting.” Representatives from at least six agencies presented during the meeting.

But if it comes down to it, what is the evacuation plan?

Anchorage Police Department Acting Deputy Chief Bill Miller said if it’s necessary, the Seward Highway will be closed, and police will go from house to house, asking people to leave. Residents can shelter in place but must inform fire personnel that they are staying.

He said the entirety of APD will be called into action and will work 12-hour shifts. Half of the staff will focus on the evacuation while the other focuses on citywide safety. The plan involves emergency shelters and animal evacuations. Residents piped up during the meeting to assure each other even horses will have a place to go.

Cheri Lipps of Bear Valley knows the evacuation plans well; she participated in a drill in her neighborhood and keeps in touch with the fire department. Bear Valley isn’t under threat from the McHugh Fire, but Lipps wanted to be able to spread useful information to her community.

“Most importantly is to be prepared, not panic,” she said after the meeting “It’s too easy for people to get excited and some of the questions and concerns are based on fear. Just reach out, pay attention and be prepared.”

That’s what Anchorage Fire Department Forester John See wants the entire community to do. He said it’s not too late to make sure your home is clear of potential fire fuels.

“You go home and you look at your wooden fence and you’re gonna find some dead grass and some leaves that didn’t get raked up last fall next to your fence, and these are great receptors for these embers that land.”

See said it’s the embers that cause most houses to burn and help spread the fire past its current boundaries.

“These gusty winds could cause these trees to torch and generate some embers that land half a mile from the main fire. That’s going to be one of the main things to watch for,” he explained.

“But as the air mass moistens up, the humidity goes up, cloud cover increases, all of that’s going to help mitigate that probability that the ember is going to start a new fire.”

McHugh is one of more than 180 fires burning around the state. Thirteen of them are staffed.