Highway lanes reopen but McHugh fire threatens nearby neighborhoods

first_imgSmoke rises from the McHugh Fire south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway on Monday night. (Alaska Division of Forestry photo)Updated: 11 p.m.State officials say the McHugh Fire burning in the Chugach State Park near the Seward Highway is up to 600 acres. The figure is on the high end of estimates from crews working to bring the blaze under control.Two small communities in the area are threatened, though officials have held off issuing a full evacuation order.“Residents in the area should begin formulating an evacuation plan if they don’t already have one,” said a release put out by the State’s Division of Forestry Tuesday evening.“The fire is approximately 1.1 miles from the Potter Creek Subdivision to the south and 1.3 miles from the Rainbown Valley subdivision to the north,” the release continued. Earlier in the day, the fire advanced toward the south and west following a ridge-line running parallel the Seward Highway below.But there was good news for drivers. Congestion along the road – the only route connecting the municipality to the Kenai Peninsula — was significantly reduced by late Tuesday night, with both lanes of traffic re-opened.By Tuesday afternoon, state agencies were reporting three-hour delays in both directions as pilot cars led vehicles down just a single 10-mile stretch of road. Fire burned a steep area of the surrounding terrain above the road, causing debris to fall down onto the highway.But according the division’s spokesperson, Lori Wiertsema, concern over road hazards are now mostly abated.“There is a possibility, but it’s been small rocks that have come down, and that edge has had a lot of bucket-drops on it,” Wiertsema said by phone late Tuesday night. “We’re pretty confident that it’s out.”Asked whether weather was cooperating with the roughly 100 personnel battling the fire Tuesday night, Wiertsema replied, “So far so good.”The National Weather Service is forecasting precipitation and cooler temperatures in the area by Thursday.According to state fire officials, five hotshot crews are coming from the Lower 48 to help with suppression efforts, and “a Type 2 management team from Alaska has been ordered to take over command” starting Wednesday morning.Updated: 6 p.m.The McHugh Fire burning within the Municipality of Anchorage close to the Seward Highway is now estimated at 350 acres. Earlier estimates on Tuesday said it had grown to more than 500 acres, but fire officials downgraded the size based on better mapping.Listen nowDivision of Forestry spokesperson Lori Wiertsema said the main thing people need to know is to avoid the area. Traffic is backed up for one to two hours in each direction. Only a single lane is open on the Seward Highway and motorists are being led through by pilot cars, but Wiertsema says they do not plan to close to road. The Anchorage Police Department had sent out a community-wide alert earlier in the afternoon saying a closure was possible.Crews are battling the fire to prevent it from damaging structures in nearby neighborhoods. They are clearing vegetation around homes and laying out some pumps and hoses as preventative measures.Lindsay Fagrelius left Rainbow Valley yesterday with her dog and hung out at the Brown Bear Saloon waiting for news. She returned to the neighborhood that evening and all was peaceful. (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Fagrelius.)Lindsay Fagrelius lives in Rainbow Valley, the neighborhood closest to the flames. She decided on her own to evacuate and was waiting it out at the Brown Bear Saloon.“The trees and brush are so dense up there I almost think it’s hopeless,” Fagrelius said. She used to work as a firefighter in Montana. “I think if it goes through, it’s going to burn pretty hot.”Fagrelius, who also had to evacuate because of the Funny River Fire on the Kenai two years ago, says she woke up, heard the news and started clearing brush from around the cabin she rents. Then she packed up her instruments, skis and dog and headed out.She said she was worried she could get stuck if the fire moved over the road, and she didn’t get the notice to evacuate.“Cell reception is so crummy [up there] I was worried I wouldn’t find out right away if there was an evacuation.”Anchorage fire marshal Cleo Hill said it’s been more than 30 years since there was a fire this size near the homes along the Hillside, and they are very concerned because of the extremely dry conditions.“Right now we’re monitoring Rainbow Valley, which is down by the McHugh Creek fire, but should the weather change and the wind head into Anchorage, we’ll be monitoring Potter Valley and south Hillside area.”Anchorage Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers will notify community members of any evacuations via Nixle alerts if necessary.Meteorologist Dave Snider with the National Weather Service said the dynamic terrain along the coast where the fire is burning complicates where the wind is feeding the flames, and makes it tricky for crews working in the area. Conditions will likely continue to feed the fire until a new weather system arrives, he said.There could be rain early Thursday morning, but Snider cautions that only about a tenth of an inch of precipitation is expected. However, along with it should come more humidity and lower temperatures.A red flag warning has been issued through 10 p.m. tonight because of high winds, low humidity, and high temperatures.There is also a burn ban in place for Anchorage. Only closed barbeques and fish smokers are allowed. Parts of Chugach State Park near the fire, including the Turnagain Arm Trail, are closed to public use. The area in the pink boundary is currently closed to public use. (Graphic courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources)last_img read more