Fires burn from Homer to Mat-Su, stalling traffic, as evacuees wait for news

Burned remains by Camp Caswell at mile 87.5 along the Parks Highway (Photo – Jenny Starrs – KTNA)

Wildfires continue burning in some of Alaska’s most populated areas, hindering transportation and endangering property all the way from Talkeetna to Homer. After weekend winds rapidly spread several fires, weather overnight Monday and into Tuesday has helped combat multiple blazes. More resources have been arriving in Alaska from the Lower 48, with hotshot crews and aircrafts still scrambling to contain major fires as state officials begin the work of assessing destroyed property.

Fire tore through properties at mile 90.5 on the Parks Highway. (Photo courtesy of Dave Straub)

Here are the major developments we know about right now:

  • As of 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, the McKinley fire burning north of Willow up to Caswell is estimated at 4,349 acres. Officials described the fire as creeping along its perimeter, but at nowhere near the speed as during the periods of high wind over the weekend. Division of Forestry Public Information Officer Kale Casey said that extremely dry duff throughout areas of tundra had caused a “very deep burn” that is proving difficult to fully extinguish. He added that today will see “a lot of aviation” from aircraft doing targeted bucket drops, however smoke is making it difficult for large planes to conduct retardant drops.
Some properties around 90.5 on the Parks Highway were lost in the fire. (Photo courtesy of Dave Straub)
  • Similar to Monday, the Parks Highways between miles 71 and 99 are open, but extremely delayed as drivers wait for hours to follow pilot cars through the burn zone. The Forestry Division cautions, “Motorists should prepare for delays by topping off on gas, being prepared, bringing snacks and water, and allowing for several hours of extra travel time in either direction.” Talkeetna radio station KTNA is posting regular updates on road access.
  • The state is beginning damage assessments today, surveying an estimated 50 structures destroyed by the McKinley fire. “That process can take days,” Casey said. As crews survey the area they will begin informing property owners of lost homes and buildings.
  • The fire burning near Deskha Landing not far from the Parks Highway slowed overnight from diminished winds and retardant drops. Fire crews managed to establish containment lines and clear fuel from around cabins at Red Shirt Lake. Casey said Tuesday morning that property was imminently in danger.
  • On the Southern Kenai Peninsula, 30 structures are at risk from the 100-acre Caribou Lake Fire. The blaze is about 23 miles northeast of Homer. Officials say crews are building a fire line along the southern perimeter, taking those structures out of immediate danger. 
  • Meanwhile, the 60-acre North Fork Fire is burning about six miles northwest of Homer. Some residents in the area have been told to be ready to evacuate, if necessary. That notice is for residents living on the North Fork Road to the north and those along the Diamond Ridge Road to the south. Both blazes showed little growth overnight.
  • The Swan Lake Fire caused traffic on the Sterling Highway to shut down again overnight after it re-opened Monday. As of 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, one-lane of traffic is open, guided by pilot cars between mileposts 53 and 75. As KDLL reports, “The City of Soldotna offered free camping at Centennial and Swiftwater parks for stranded motorists. The rodeo grounds were made available for individuals with livestock or other animals.”
  • Off of the road system, the small Bristol Bay community of Levelock came dangerously close to losing homes from a fire estimated to be burning about 5,000 acres to its west. In an update Tuesday morning, the Division of Forestry wrote, “Eight Alaska smokejumpers, aided by heavy equipment and villagers, were able to secure two sections of the Levelock Fire that crossed the dozer line and encroached into the village late Monday night. As of this Tuesday, there were no structures lost.” KDLG in Dillingham reported the fire came to within half-a-mile of the community.

This is a developing story, check back for updates.

Reporting contributed by Abbey Collins in Anchorage, Jay Berrett in Kenai, and Isabelle Ross in Dillingham.