At least 50 structures have burned in the McKinley Fire, Division of Forestry officials confirmed late Sunday night.
It’s one pair of wildfires separated by only about 20 miles in the Willow area that have crews scrambling.
“Firefighters and other emergency responders worked furiously to evacuate and rescue residents threatened by the fire,” DOF officials said in an update issued late Sunday night.
Late Sunday night and early Monday morning, Mat-Su Borough and forestry officials were working to determine a specific number of structures lost, and account for residents who did not evacuate. The McKinley Fire was estimated to be about 1,800 acres in size as of Sunday at 10 p.m., according to forestry.
The McKinley Fire jumped the Parks Highway at about Mile 88 Sunday evening. About 20 miles south, the Deshka Fire has forced crews into a defensive mode as they work to protect cabins on Red Shirt Lake. Both fires started late Saturday afternoon and have been driven by heavy winds ever since.
The Alaska State Troopers, Mat-Su Borough, Division of Forestry and Department of Transportation have issued a flurry of alerts Sunday evening, ranging from road closures to mandatory evacuations. The Mat-Su Borough School District announced that Trapper Creek Elementary, Talkeetna Elementary, Willow Elementary and Susitna Valley Jr./Sr High School will be closed due to increased danger from the fires.
The latest mandatory evacuation order called for all residents to leave their homes on both sides of the Parks Highway from Mile 82 to 91. The Parks Highway was closed from Mile 70 to Mile 99, as of about 9 p.m. Sunday.
The American Red Cross of Alaska moved its evacuation center on the south side of the McKinley Fire to the Menard Sports Center in Wasilla. The Red Cross had been set up at the Willow Community Center. The switch was effective as of Sunday at 8 p.m. There is also the evacuation center set up on the north side of the fire at the Upper Susitna Senior Center in Talkeetna.
Linda Buchanan is among the many forced to flee their homes as the McKinley fire chewed through acres north of Willow Sunday. She was among a group of people who stood near where the Parks Highway was closed to northbound traffic.
“The neighbors were all saying, get your stuff ready,” Buchanan said. “We finally came down, and we knew once we came down there was no going back.”
Buchanan, who lived with her family in Wasilla for 25 years, has lived in the Willow area for the last 12. She said her family also has property on Trapper Lake, where they spend the summer. Buchanan said with each passing year, fire danger becomes more and more of a concern.
“It’s worse. We noticed the east side of (Trapper Lake) is just brown. It’s just a matter of time until we’re going to have another fire,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan said her Trapper Lake property already survived a wildfire in 2007. Now, she sits and waits wondering how her home near Mile 84 of the Parks Highway will fare.
“It’s awful,” Buchanan said. “You leave the house and think, am I going to go back?”
Sunday night, evacuees fleeing the fires found refuge at the Menard Sport Center. Children giggled and played on the indoor turf, while their parents sipped coffee and talked to fellow evacuees.
People made their way inside with suitcases and dismay on their faces, asking the American Red Cross volunteers questions.
City of Wasilla Recreation and Cultural Services Director Joan Klapperich said that a young old girl was celebrating her 11th birthday. She said that several people put their heads together and rustled up a cake and some ice cream so the girl could have an impromptu birthday party in spite of the jostled circumstances.
“That’s so sweet of them… We [as a community] try to make the best of challenging circumstances,” Klapperich said.
Around 10:40 p.m., Mat-Su American Red Cross Public Information Officer Connie Black said there were about 20 volunteers working the grounds.
“We usually ramp up right away,” Black said.
Black said that people could sleep inside or out in the parking lot. There were hundreds of cots pillows and blankets set up on the turf. Dozens of people were strewn across the lot, some staying in RV’s while others were sleeping in their vehicles.
Brant Leach and Renee Shinton made their way to the Menard Center around 6 p.m.,following the closure of the Willow Community Center’s shelter. They had originally evacuated and made their way back home before they got the news it was time to leave again.
“It’s pretty disheartening but it is what it is,” Leach said. “I’m glad we got out.”
Black said the community center was too close to the fire and the large sports center with its expansive parking arrangements was not only safer, but more accommodating. People could take showers in the locker rooms and there were a lot of snacks, water and coffee.
“We can expand and contract as the need occurs… We’ll utilize this facility as long as it makes sense,” Black said.
Black said the Menard Center is a great facility for the situation and it was nice to see kids playing amid all the uncertainty.
“The main message is this, ‘we have a safe place for them to stay… we’ll be here as long as we’re needed,” Black said.
Leach and Shinton busily attended to 11 vocal sled dogs. They were amongst many sled dog teams seeking refuge that evening.
“Neither one of us has got any sleep,” Leach said.
Leach said that he really hopes the fire doesn’t take everything they worked so hard for. He said they just stored hundreds of salmon for their dogs.
“I’m hoping it don’t burn up nothing… I’ve heard good news and I’ve heard bad news,” Leach said.
Shinton said that it’s tough finding a place to park with so many dogs so she was thankful for the access.
“We have somewhere to park,” Shinton said.
Shinton pet one of her dogs in a rhythmic motion. She was visibly weary but the dogs seemed to perk her up. She said the dogs were getting restless since they’re used to their wide free ranges back home.
“Yeah they’re spoiled,” Shinton laughed.
When it was time to evacuate, their dogs were priority number one. She said the material possessions can be replaced but lives are irreplaceable. Aside from the dogs, some food and basics, they didn't grab much else.
“All I could think about was these guys,” Shinton said.
Shinton and Leach are working through this the best they can in a whirlwind of uncertainty as the flames burn the distance.
“I don’t know if it’s all gone or not,” Shinton said.
The Deshka Fire grew between 600 and 1,000 acres Saturday night into Sunday morning, according to an update provided by the Division of Forestry Sunday morning. The fire has reached Rolly Creek, and has been closing in on the South Rolly Campground. Nancy Lake Parkway is now closed at Mile 2.2. Alaska State Parks officials have started issuing evacuation notices to those staying in cabins in the Red Shirt Lake area. Forestry officials said those who have vehicles parked at the Red Shirt Lake trailhead will be allowed to leave, despite the road closure.