It’s a wound yet to heal — people in Willow are still dealing with the aftermath of the 2015 Sockeye Fire, and now there’s new destruction from the McKinley Fire. But for crews working the line, déjà vu could be a good thing.

The current fire is following a familiar pattern that the area saw four years ago. If the McKinley Fire reaches the area where the Sockeye burned, the old fire scars could slow its spread.

"The two fires are very similar. Both were wind events that came out through the Alaska Range, so a north wind, dry wind, very strong winds — 30 miles per hour plus with gusts," said director of the Alaska Division of Forestry Chris Maisch. 

The Sockeye Fire started near mile 77 of the Parks Highway, and winds from the north fanned the flames south to around mile 70. 

Sockeye Fire perimeter map. (Courtesy: Alaska Division of Forestry)

 Similarly, the McKinley Fire, which started farther north — around mile 91 — has stretched as far south as mile 84 in the first five days. 

McKinley Fire perimeter map as of Aug. 20, 2019. (Courtesy: Alaska Division of Forestry)


Lead information officer for the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team Kale Casey says crews are committed to holding the southern line of fire at that point, creating an anchor there from which to work on containment. 

But if the fire were to spread into the area burned by the Sockeye, Maisch says it could help.

"Old fire scars we often use as a strategic tool, especially if they're newer ones within the last five, maybe 10, years. They definitely will often force the fire to the ground if it's a crowning fire when it approaches an old scar," Maisch said. "And that gives us the ability to go direct or get at the fire much more efficiently from a firefighting standpoint."

Black spruce trees recently burned, like the ones charred by the Sockeye Fire, are less flammable. They can slow the pace of the fire, giving crews time to work on other parts of the perimeter. 

"It doesn't mean that that's a complete fuel or fire break. The fire will still creep through those areas," Maisch noted. "But if it has a wind on it, it can move very rapidly still through those light fuels that have grown in there to replace the trees and vegetation that were killed in the previous fire."

Maisch says Alaskans living in the area burned by the Sockeye should still be alert to any changes with the McKinley Fire because old fire scars don't offer complete protection against new fires.

Both Maisch and Casey say the best fire protection anywhere is to create a defensible space around property, following the firewise principles.

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