McKinley Fire near Willow

Crews continue to scramble as a pair of wildfires burn through the Willow area of the Susitna Valley.

The McKinley Fire had an estimated size of about 4,400 acres as of Tuesday morning, while the Deshka Fire was about 1,800. Sunday, about 22 miles separated the Deshka and McKinley fires. That gap has been reduced to about 15 miles. The Deshka Fire is currently burning about five miles west of Mile 68 of the Parks Highway. An evacuation order remains in effect for areas on both sides of the Parks Highway from Mile 82 to 91. At best, a single lane of traffic with a pilot car escort is open on the stretch of the Parks. But authorities warn, that can close at anytime. Heavy smoke has created zero visibility in spots.

“Division of Forestry is working on both sides of the Parks Highway to suppress the fire,” Division of Forestry Public Information officer John See told reporters. “Most of the activity is between Miles 82 and 91. Residents in that area should leave their homes immediately if they have not already. We are restricting people from going back in the area that has been evacuated.”

Forestry confirmed late Sunday night that “at least” 50 structures have been lost in the McKinley Fire. See said Forestry is working with the State Fire Marshalls Office and the Red Cross to verify structures that have been lost in the fire. Crews are also working to defend homes that are still standing.

“We’re working closely with local fire departments in the area to protect other structures near the perimeter as the fire moves,” See said.

Authorities are also working to account for people in the evacuation zone along the Parks Highway. The Mat-Su Borough is asking for those who may know of people who are unaccounted for to contact the borough’s call center at 907-861-8326.

Crews continue to work to protect cabins along Red Shirt Lake Monday as the Deshka Fire grew to 1,800 acres, according to the Division of Forestry.

“Air tankers are currently making strategic retardant drops around the perimeter of the fire to create containment lines to help slow the spread and kept it west of Long Lake Road, where there are subdivisions and cabins,” Forestry officials said in an update.

Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey and Mayor Vern Halter signed a signed a disaster declaration Thursday because of the fires. The borough is also asking Gov. Mike Dunleavy to also declare a disaster emergency and provide state assistance.

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 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.

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