51 homes burned from McKinley fire, 3 businesses, 80 outbuildings

Cale Casey with the Division of Forestry and Ken Barkley from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough update reporters on the McKinley fire outside the Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla Friday morning. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Officials dealing with the McKinley fire burning between Willow and Talkeetna released an assessment Friday of damage since the blaze ignited last weekend.

“Fifty-one homes were lost,” said Ken Barkley, Director of Emergency Services for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, addressing reporters outside the Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.

In addition, three businesses in the area also burned, along with approximately 80 outbuildings.

Read more: 2019 wildfire coverage

On Friday, officials with state and local agencies, as well as the Red Cross, informed property owners from within the fire’s perimeter about the status of their homes. The sports complex, which is serving as an evacuation shelter, was closed to members of the press to protect people’s privacy.

“It’s very hard to find out that everything you own is gone,” Barkley said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s something you never want to have to do again.” 

About 60 people have been staying at the Wasilla shelter overnight, with more staying in RV’s and trucks in the parking lot.

Officials cautioned that the fire is still extremely active, and could intensify on Saturday because of a shifting wind pattern. Three-hundred-eighty firefighters are expected to be combating the blaze by Friday night, aided by air assets.

Though residents are learning about the status of their property, they are still not allowed to re-enter the fire perimeter and return to homes that may be left standing.

“Re-entry discussion won’t even happen until after this weekend,” said Kale Casey, Public Information Officer with the Division of Forestry. 

One of the biggest hazards facing fire crews right now is falling trees. Because this summer’s drought has dried out the land much deeper than usual, tree’s root systems are failing at a higher than normal rate. Even State Troopers have begun carrying chain saws because routes in and out of the fire areas are frequently blocked off after they have entered. The drought index in the area is “off the charts,” according to Casey, even compared to other recent high-fire years.

“It’s very dry. It’s very hot. It’s very dangerous,” Casey said.

The Red Cross is beginning to work with residents who lost homes to secure funds for them and figure out a future place to stay for the winter. Not all the buildings lost belonged to permanent residents, but according to Barkley many are.

People without homes will stay at Menard. Red Cross working to get them funds and a future for the winter. Over half have already moved on, staying with family or friends. Not all are permanent residents, but many are.

Officials will continue informing residents about the status of their property throughout Friday.

“Not all of them have shown up,” Barkley said. “Most already know.”

Numerous chaplains were on hand at the evacuation center, along with four therapy dogs to help provide comfort to people.