Officials outline firefighting efforts, evacuation plans for McHugh Creek Fire
ANCHORAGE — Latest Update: 9:45 p.m., Wednesday, July 20
At a community meeting Wednesday evening, officials emphasized the importance of being ready for an evacuation, even if one is never put in place.
Representatives for the Anchorage Police Department, Division of Forestry, Alaska Type II Incident Management Team and even the National Weather Service spoke to concerned community members and residents of two neighborhoods closest to the fire about what was being done to fight the fire, protect homes and prepare for a possible evacuation.
DOF incident commander Tom Kurth said information officers and police would be available in the Potter Valley and Rainbow Valley neighborhoods to answer questions and assist residents with preparing for an evacuation.
APD Acting Deputy Chief Bill Miller said if an evacuation of residents above Potter Marsh became necessary, the Seward Highway would be shut down to allow residents to leave quickly and leave access open for fire personnel.
Miller also promoted a “Ready, Set, Go” emergency plan:
- Ready — He said “ready” means making preparations around your home that could prevent damage from fire, like clearing away brush around the property.
- Set — Have things you and your family will need if an evacuation is implemented ready. Miller recommended creating a “go bag” with at least three days’ worth of medication, money, clothes and other things that meet your family’s specific needs.
- Go — If an evacuation is ordered, Miller said police will go door-to-door to alert all affected residents. For those who don’t want to leave, he said they will not be arrested or forced from their homes, but emergency personnel will need to collect the names of everyone staying at a residence to make sure they are accounted for later.
Miller said the police department has an emergency plan in place should an evacuation become necessary. That includes a full department recall of more than 500 officers, he said. Half would be assigned to respond to crimes and other reported incidents in Anchorage, while the other half would assist with emergency operations related to the evacuation.
Kurth said the Municipality of Anchorage’s Emergency Operations Center can provide assistance for residents with special needs during an evacuation, as well as pets and other domesticated animals, like horses. For EOC assistance, call 907-343-1407.
Evacuation centers have been designated, according to Miller. The first evacuation center that will be set up is the Spenard Community Recreation Center, located at 2020 W 48th Ave. He said food, generators and water have been set aside for evacuation centers should the need arise.
The current status of evacuations, road conditions and emergency advisories can be found by calling the Anchorage Emergency Conditions line at 907-343-4701.
Stay up-to-date with evacuations, firefighting efforts and more:
Latest Update: 6:15 p.m., Wednesday, July 20
Officials with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center has increased the size estimate for the McHugh Creek Fire to 842 acres, a sharp jump from the 350 to 600 acre estimate given Wednesday morning based on better mapping.
Additional hotshot firefighters arrived in Anchorage Wednesday afternoon to assist with operations. They will be briefed and should begin assisting Thursday, according to incident commander Tom Kurth.
“Blackhawk helicopters dropping bucketloads of water are assisting crews with holding the northern perimeter which is nearest the Potter Valley subdivision,” an update on the Alaska Wildland Fire Information website stated.
Crews are still monitoring homes in the Rainbow Valley area, about a mile east of the fire line, and the Potter Valley area a mile west of the fire.
Officials say the Seward Highway will remain fully open, but urge drivers not to stop along the roadway.
A community meeting will be held at South High School — 13400 Elmore Road — at 7 p.m. to inform the public on the latest updates.
The event will be streamed live on the KTVA 11 News Facebook page.
Updated: 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 20
Fire officials have decided to close the pull-offs between McHugh Creek and Rainbow trails to keep traffic moving and the Seward Highway open.
The decision was announced at a press conference Wednesday. Sarah Saarloos, Department of Forestry (DOF) public information officer, said people stopping along the roadway to take pictures of the landscape and the McHugh Creek Fire spurred the decision.
“We have a lot of public that are excited about taking photos of the fire and checking out operations,” Saarloos said.
The incident commander for the fire, Tom Kurth, said it is imperative to have the traffic moving so drivers and emergency vehicles alike can travel the highway.
“Keeping this road corridor open is a priority for us,” he said.
An online release following the press conference states the fire is currently estimated at 350 to 600 acres, with smoke making it difficult to get more definite dimensions.
Kurth said fire officials’ goal for the day is not containment. Rather, crews will take a “defensive stance” until forecasted rain and specialized teams from the Lower 48 take over.
As of Wednesday morning, there were 150 personnel on the fire. The additional crews arrived in Anchorage Wednesday afternoon and will be briefed before taking over sometime Thursday. This is the first time this fire season DOF has had to call in hotshot crews from the Lower 48.
At this point, their strategy is dependent on the rain, Kurth said, adding that without the precipitation plans will have to change.
Kurth described the fire as an L-shape with one head that is heading up into the McHugh Valley and another “finger” that is moving toward the Rainbow Valley.
Wildlife has become an issue in combatting the blaze, as bears were seen as recent as Wednesday morning. Because of this, fire crews will not continue camping near McHugh Creek and all meals will be had at Goldenview Middle School.
There are no planned evacuations at this time, Kurth said, but that fire officials are asking residents to be thinking about preparation should the conditions change quickly and drastically. The process was explained as “ready, set, go.”
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, though Kurth said the area is a heavily used recreation area, so it is highly likely to be human-caused.
A community meeting to update residents on the firefighting efforts is scheduled for 7 p.m. at South High School.
Below: Two Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and aircrews from the 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment perform water bucket operations in support of wildfire suppression efforts for the McHugh Creek fire near Anchorage / Video by Staff Sgt. Balinda O’Neal Dresel
Updated at 8:00 a.m., Wednesday, July 20
Both lanes of the Seward Highway remain open Wednesday morning, as crews continue to fight the McHugh Creek Fire that burned overnight.
Some firefighters camped overnight. Crews were closely monitoring flames where the fire was approaching the highway. Traffic delays were upward of four hours at times on Tuesday and drivers are advised that road closures may be reinstated Wednesday.
A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m. Backup crews from the Lower 48 are expected to depart for Alaska on Wednesday.
Updated at 9:10 p.m., Tuesday, July 19
The McHugh Creek Fire is little more than a mile from two neighborhoods, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry.
“The fire progressed south and west on Tuesday along a ridge top toward Potter Creek that parallels the [Seward] Highway,” DOF officials wrote in an update. “The area most affected by the fire is from mile 108 to 113 of the Seward Highway.”
On the west side, the fire’s edge is about 1.1 miles away from the Potter Creek subdivision in Anchorage and 1.3 miles east of the fire is the Rainbow Valley subdivision. While an aerial attack is being conducted on the fire itself, ground crews were pulled off the fire and are standing by to protect homes in those neighborhoods.
No evacuations have been ordered yet, and DOF said police will notify affected residents if any are put in place.
“Residents can also sign up for evacuation alerts from the Anchorage police and fire departments at http://www.nixle.com,” the statement said.
Additionally, the Anchorage Fire Department is setting up a checkpoint on Southpointe Ridge Drive. Only neighborhood residents will be allowed past that checkpoint in order to mitigate a problem of people trespassing on private property to get a better look at the fire.
Traffic has been at a standstill along the Seward Highway for most of the day as drivers wait for a pilot vehicle to guide them between mileposts 104 and 115, the area where the highway has been closed down to one lane for all traffic. Fire officials said the closure was “due to safety hazards posed by the fire, such as rocks and burning trees falling down from the top of a steep cliff the fire is burning on that parallels the road.”
Just after 8:30 p.m., fire officials on scene said they expected to reopen the highway at 9 p.m. Matt Jones, a spokesman for DOF, said the fire has subsided along the highway to a level fire officials consider safe. He said the road could be shut down or restricted to one lane again at any time if the smoke cuts visibility, there’s a lot of debris or they need to get emergency vehicles through quickly.
Jones said fire engines from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will patrol the highway Tuesday night.
Around 100 personnel are assigned to the fire and at least five more hotshot crews will arrive from the Lower 48 Wednesday. Agencies assisting in firefighting operations include the DOF, the Anchorage Fire Department, Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service, JBER and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Updated at 7:03 p.m., Tuesday, July 19
Officials have not yet given a cause as to what started the McHugh Creek Fire, currently burning alongside the Seward Highway mere miles from Alaska’s largest city.
The fire was reevaluated between 300 to 350 acres late Tuesday afternoon as a result of better aerial survey mapping, according to Alaska Division of Forestry public information officer Lori Wiertsema.
The fire is being upgraded from a Type 4 to a Type 2 fire, opening up a large amount of additional resources and the establishment of a base camp, according to Renette Saba, DOF Incident Commander.
Southbound traffic was backed up well into South Anchorage Wednesday evening and drivers attempting to travel through the area can expect at least a four hour delay.
A new concern for motorists along the stretch of Seward Highway nearest to the fire is falling rocks, possibly set loose by water used to extinguish the fire, Saba told KTVA. She also said the affected section of highway may remain at one lane for multiple days.
Additional resources from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were sent to “provide structural protection for the Rainbow Subdivision that is located above Potter Marsh,” according to a release sent by the borough.
Update: 4:42 p.m., Tuesday, July 19
The McHugh Creek Fire grew quickly Tuesday, and is now estimated to be around 300 to 350 acres in size, a decrease from the earlier prediction of 500 to 600 acres, and is 100 percent active, according to an update from Lori Wiertsema, public information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry. She also said officials flying around the fire were attempting to get a more accurate estimate of the size.
No firefighter personnel are currently on the ground because the fire is too active, Wiertsema told KTVA. The Anchorage Fire Department has a Type 2 crew staged on the southern end of the fire at Rainbow, while hotshot and smokejumper crews are staged at Potter Marsh.
Air tankers and multiple helicopters are being used to drop fire retardant and water on the blaze. Two Blackhawk helicopters from the Alaska Army National Guard are also assisting with water drops.
At least three fire crews have been redirected to assist with monitoring homes in the Potter Creek and Rainbow Valley areas. No evacuation orders are in place yet but residents in the area are being asked to gather personal belongings and be prepared to leave on short notice.
— Heather Hintze (@HeatherHintze) July 19, 2016
A burn ban has been issued for the Municipality of Anchorage and areas of the Chugach State Park have been closed to visitors as crews work to contain the McHugh Creek Fire. All open burning is prohibited within the MOA until further notice, according to a release from Anchorage Fire Chief Denis LeBlanc.
State park officials announced the closure of trails and public use areas in the McHugh Creek and Rainbow Creek drainages (map below) — including the McHugh Creek Trail, Rainbow Peak Trail, the Rainbow trailhead the McHugh Creek wayside and the Beluga Point pullout.
Drivers are asked to avoid the area if possible. Fire is not currently threatening the roadway, but crews have the northbound lanes closed as they continue to stage emergency vehicles. Traffic is currently down to one lane with a pilot car between mile 108 to 113 of the Seward Highway and the road may be closed at any time, according to officials.
Expect delays of a few hours if you are attempting to pass through the area.
No fire personnel have required treatment Tuesday and the firefighters treated for minor injuries Monday have been released.
The Alaska Railroad is still currently running through the area, according to spokesperson Tim Sullivan. Two trains made the trip from Anchorage to Seward Tuesday morning and two are expected to return this evening. Sullivan said they would be monitoring the situation throughout the day.
Weather conditions are expected to dry and windy through Tuesday and a Red Flag Warning has been issued for parts of Turnagain Arm until 10 p.m. Tuesday. Winds are expected to be sustained between 5 to 15 mph, gusting to 30 mph.
A *Red Flag Warning* is in effect through 10 PM for Turnagain Arm. Warm, dry, & windy conditions in the forecast. pic.twitter.com/i7Khy2dcGV
— KTVA Weather (@ktvaweather) July 19, 2016
Update: 10:55 a.m., Tuesday, July 19
The McHugh Creek Fire burning along the Seward Highway just south of Anchorage increased in size Monday evening. Officials estimate the fire has grown to 200 acres, according to an update Tuesday morning posted by the Alaska Division of Forestry.
Multiple crews are on scene working on possible evacuations of the Rainbow Valley and Potter Creek subdivisions.
“The Pioneer Peak and Chena hotshot crews and a U.S. Forest crew have responded to the Rainbow Valley Subdivision to begin taking structure protection measures and smokejumpers from the BLM Alaska Fire Service are doing assessments in the Potter Creek Subdivision,” the update stated.
Roughly 100 firefighters are currently battling the blaze, which has reached the edge of the Seward Highway.
After closing one lane, the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering a complete closure of the Seward Highway from mile marker 108 to mile marker 113, as crews battle the fire.
The DOT cited poor air quality and flames near the roadway as reasons for the possible closure. Travel is not advised through the area and the department asks drivers to use caution.
Travelers in the area should expect long delays and be prepared to stop as emergency and maintenance vehicles are on the road to fight the fire.
Video of the McHugh Creek Fire taken late Monday evening. Courtesy Geoff Van Horn.
Updated at 7:11 p.m. on Monday, July 18
Fire officials are calling on crews from around the U.S. to fight a wildfire burning above McHugh Creek that was estimated at 70 acres in size Monday morning. Two Alaska firefighters were taken to a hospital for heat-related injuries, according to officials.
“Two members of the Pioneer Peak hotshot crew were transported to the hospital for heat-related injuries, i.e. heat exhaustion/dehydration,” said Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry in an email to KTVA. “Nothing major, just part of the hard work firefighters are tasked with, especially in an environment like the one they are working in.”
Renette Saba, incident commander with the Division of Forestry, said Monday the fire was about 2 percent contained. Saba said crews worked until midnight Sunday and resumed work early the following day.
Saba said they are calling in reinforcements from the Lower 48 to help fight the fire. There are currently more than 50 people on the ground and in the air working the blaze above the Seward Highway, including members of the Chena Hotshots from the Fairbanks area and the Pioneer Peak Hotshots from Palmer. Saba said an additional Alaska crew is out of state.
“We are tapped out in Alaska,” she said, with crews in the state busy with other fires. She said it would take at least 48 hours to bring in manpower from Outside.
Saba said in order to ensure the fire is completely extinguished, they will need additional “boots on the ground” to feel the soil and make sure the fire isn’t smoldering underground.
Saba said containment isn’t expected for several days “unless there’s a torrential downpour, which isn’t forecast.” She said the fire doesn’t appear to be spreading, it’s still estimated at up to 70 acres, but another survey will be done this evening.
Steep terrain is making things difficult for firefighters. And so are bears. Saba said bears were spotted on Sunday and have been seen Monday as well.
“We have bear guards standing by,” Saba said, adding that crews will work to end any situation with wildlife peacefully but guards are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect firefighters.
And she said it’s likely the McHugh Creek picnic area and trail will remain closed at least till the end of the week. The recreation area has been closed because of the fire and people are urged to stay off the McHugh Trail for safety reasons. Traffic along the nearby Seward Highway has also been affected by the fire.
“The fire is putting up smoke now that is laying down on the Seward Highway, causing potential traffic hazards,” Mowry added. “We are working on getting signs to warn motorists that visibility is limited and to use caution.”
Earlier Monday, Saba said they had planned an aggressive aerial attack today that includes four helicopters with water buckets and two tanker planes. She said having the fire completely contained won’t likely happen for a day or two and expected crews to be on scene at the end of week mopping up hot spots.
This is a developing story; please check back for updates.
Reporting by KTVA’s Lauren Maxwell, Jessica Stugelmayer, Jason Sear and Heather Hintze.
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