Sockeye Fire destroys 20 structures; 1,700 in evacuation zone

Sockeye Fire destroys 20 structures; 1,700 in evacuation zone

14 June 2015

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USA — AK- The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center lists up to 45 structures destroyed in the Sockeye fire as of early Monday, with more federal assistance being called to fight the 6,500-acre fire.

“There were 25 primary structures lost as well as 10-20 secondary structures lost north of Kashwitna Lake,” fire officials wrote in an update posted on an AICC map. “Five hotshot crews have been ordered from the Lower 48 and a Type 2 Team has also been ordered.”

According to the National Park Service’s website, a Type 2 incident management team is a group of federal and state officials called in for major fires and other public-safety emergencies. It is second in complexity only to a Type 1 team, formed to handle national-scale events such as hurricanes.

At 6,500 acres and growing, the Sockeye Fire in Southcentral Alaska has fire officials urging evacuation of hundreds of homes and will delay traffic on the Parks Highway for days to come.

Here is the latest update from the Division of Forestry on the wildfire that has destroyed an unknown number of buildings in the Willow area:

— Expect periodic closures along the Parks Highway over the next few days, with pilot cars guiding traffic through when possible. The roadway is currently open “on a limited basis.”

— Smoke is visible in Anchorage and will likely be seen as far south as Kenai. Check the latest air-quality advisories here.

— As of late Sunday night, the fire was burning on the west side of the Parks Highway, just south of Willow Creek. It leaped from the west side of the highway to the east and back again, currently creeping south.

— The evacuation area extends from Mile 63 to Mile 78 of the Parks, west to the Susitna River and on two miles east of the Parks.

— 1,700 residential structures and homes are in the evacuation area.

— 210 people have signed up to stay at evacuation centers in Houston, near Talkeetna and at the Wasilla Fish Hook Bible Camp.

— As of midnight Sunday, more than 200 people were working on firefighting efforts with more help on the way, including five hotshot crews from the Lower 48.

— Officials expect the fire to “calm down overnight” through Monday morning while still continuing to spread.

— The fire is believed to be human caused and is under investigation.

— The Mat-Su Borough is handling evacuations. For information, call the borough emergency operations center at (907) 861-8500.

No deaths have been reported. One firefighter has been treated for heat exhaustion, according to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.


’38 years of memories gone,’ says Jonrowe

DeeDee Jonrowe, a veteran Iditarod musher, is among those who evacuated. While it is too early to know for sure what became of her home, Jonrowe believes that all is lost except her 52 sled dogs, a truck, cash, and a passport.

Her 15-year-old dog, Python, and her cat, Miss Kitty, were apparently killed in the fire.

“38 years of memories gone,” she said of her home.

Jonrowe, a fan-favorite contender in the annual 1,000-mile sled dog race, is one of several renowned mushers who live and train in the Willow area now under siege by the growing wildfire.

Division of Forestry officials have been unable to say if Jonrowe’s house was indeed among the buildings destroyed.

“Emergency managers and firefighters are focused on the evacuation and saving homes and, as yet, there has not been a damage assessment,” fire officials wrote.



The Sockeye Fire has ballooned to 6,500 acres, state officials say.

The Division of Forestry and other agencies report that the flames are moving south with the evacuation area now expanded to Mile 63 to Mile 77 of the Parks Highway.

Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry said the agency is unaware of any injuries or deaths caused by the fire. The number of structures or homes destroyed was unknown as of about 1 a.m. Monday.

Though remote, the roadside community of Willow is thick with sled dog yards and homesteads and many residents were sent fleeing for safety after the fire began to spread at about 1 p.m. Sunday.

The blaze is “expected to calm tonight but expected to still spread” throughout the early morning hours Monday, Mat-Su borough officials announced on Facebook.

“Fire activity will be similar again (Monday),” according to the Borough.

About 125 people have signed up to take shelter at the Upper Susitna Senior Center near Talkeetna, with another 25 housed at Houston Middle School, the borough writes.

Twenty-four evacuees were being sheltered at the Willow community center until the blaze threatened that building too.

Voluntary evacuations are being called for in the Willow area as a Willow wildfire rapidly expands Sunday night, after closing the Parks Highway. Displaced residents were moved from the initial evacuation center in Willow to Houston as the blaze spread.

As of 10:30 p.m., the size of the Sockeye fire had increased to just over 4,100 acres, according to Division of Forestry spokeswoman Celeste Prescott.

In an interview with Channel 2 News earlier in the evening, Prescott emphasized that the number was a preliminary estimate, noting that the true size of the fire was difficult to determine.

“It’s hard, with all of this smoke in the air,” Prescott said.

Mat-Su Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said voluntary evacuation notices were being issued along the highway Sunday, with a borough request for residents from Mile 77 to Deshka Landing following one from Alaska State Troopers for evacuations from Mile 69 to Mile 77. Troopers were also evacuating the Long Lake Road subdivision, with traffic being allowed out of the area but not back in.

In addition, Sullivan said, the evacuation center set up at the Willow Community Center is itself being evacuated to the Houston Middle School. Sullivan also said that “Mushin’ Mortician” Scott Janssen, from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, was offering his funeral home on the Parks Highway near Trunk Road as a shelter.
“He said there’s plenty of room. It used to be a church,” Sullivan said. “His number is 907-279-5477.”

Sullivan also sent out an urgent request at 8 p.m. Sunday that people headed south into the closed section of the Parks return to Talkeetna.

“Residents who passed through a road block traveling south on the Parks Highway past Mile 77 are requested to turn around and head back to Talkeetna,” Sullivan wrote. “There is a shelter in Talkeetna at the Senior Center.”

Alaska Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry said Sunday evening that five hotshot crews had been asked to come to Alaska, after the so-called Sockeye fire near Willow’s Sockeye Avenue flared up from a small area in a matter of hours. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, there were no estimates on how much, if any of the fire was contained.

“It’s actually up to a thousand acres now, or about 1,100 — we’re bringing in resources from the Lower 48 now,” Mowry said. “We’re focusing on defensive strategy and point protection, because it’s a pretty intense fire and it’s moving pretty fast.”

An updated map of the fire, posted on the Mat-Su Borough’s Facebook page Sunday evening, showed a footprint of the fire at about 4,182 acres and still spreading.

The Anchorage Fire Department said on its Facebook page that it was sending “a task force of apparatus” to the area, at the division’s request, to help protect structures in the region.

State officials said the Parks Highway remained closed at Mile 77 Sunday night. Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said that people shouldn’t wait for the highway to reopen during the evening, because “there’s a chance that it won’t.”

“The road closure is indefinite and it depends on the conditions,” Ipsen wrote in an email to Channel 2.

Mat-Su Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said in a 4 p.m. online update that the fire had grown to an estimated 200 acres in size, with all borough fire responders being called to fight the fire.

“Willow is a dog mushing community,” Sullivan wrote. “Pet evacuation is in demand.”

According to Mowry, an initial report from Forestry officials that the fire was human-caused, relayed by Sullivan in the Mat-Su Borough post, was inaccurate.

“It’s still under investigation, and we don’t know what caused it,” Mowry said.

Mowry said earlier Sunday that three 20-person fire crews and several Palmer-area fire engines were initially committed to fighting the fire. An initial helicopter and tanker aircraft were already on scene, with additional tanker support inbound from Fairbanks.

“It’s moving pretty fast, and we’re throwing pretty much everything we have at it,” Mowry said.

Cook said several fire engines from departments in the region, as well as a helicopter from the Alaska Division of Forestry, were responding to the scene. He said the closure extended from the Parks’ intersection with Willow Fishhook Road to Mile 74, with crews working to contain fire that had jumped the highway.

Cook said the fire was initially reported at about 1:30 p.m. at about 200 feet by 200 feet. While no structures had burned at that time, a trailer and a shed were threatened by the blaze.

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