A wildfire that erupted suddenly Thursday afternoon in a wooded area of East Anchorage broke out in the area of many homeless camps, fire officials said.
But the real cause of the fire remained unclear as of early Friday as an investigation continued.
The fire burned just over 13 acres in the forest near the intersection of Elmore and Dowling Roads and was estimated to be 50% contained Thursday night. Hot, dry conditions in Anchorage increased fire danger Thursday. The municipality has implemented a citywide burning ban.
According to Mike McMillan, public information officer for the Forestry Division, a combination of air tanker fire lines, helicopter bucket drops and dozens of firefighters on the ground “caught” the blaze to the point that containment was expected to improve rapidly on Friday.
No structure was threatened and no homes evacuated on Thursday.
But as the flames intensified in the trees off Dowling, about 10 people emerged from homeless camps in the area, Anchorage Fire Deputy Chief Alex Boyd said Friday morning. They were allowed to return later after being questioned by investigators, but were encouraged to find other places to stay.
“We are still investigating the actual source of the fire,” Boyd said. “There is evidence of camps all around near where the origin is. Whether or not it’s something from an old fire, something that’s been thrown in there… we’re just not comfortable saying we believe it’s a camp . There are many camps in this region. And the fire burned so intensely as it moved.
Separately, he said, a criminal investigation is underway into four people suspected of intentionally starting fires in the eastern Chester Creek Trail area this summer. A spokeswoman for the Anchorage Police Department said she had no additional information as of Friday morning.
Boyd said he doesn’t believe any of those people were seen in the area of the Elmore fire before it started on Thursday.
“There are no witness statements or evidence leading us to say that this was intentionally established,” he said. “But…when we did MLK, we thought the same – until we found the flare.”
Thursday’s blaze burned near the site of a man-made fire in 2019 that caused homes in the area to be evacuated. This fire was later determined to have been caused by a flare fired into the ground near a camp, Boyd said.
No lightning was reported in the area of Thursday’s fire, McMillan said. Eight Forestry Division firefighters remained and worked on the blaze overnight Friday, including an incident commander, he said. A top crew from the Lower 48 was also due to arrive on Friday morning.
Crews finished chain-sawing a line around the fire on Thursday evening to allow firefighters to lay hose around it, he said. “Once they have a pipe all the way around the fire, just spray the edges and work your way inside.”
The center of the fire was still burning late Thursday, but crews had a 10 to 15 foot “wet” line around the fire along with several large drops of retardant, Boyd said. The suit was causing major smoke in East Anchorage on Friday, he said. Additional reports of smoke also came from Mat-Su.
All roads in the area were reopened early Friday, Anchorage police said. The Anchorage Office of Emergency Management said on social media that drivers should give crews enough space to work in the coming days.
The fire elicited a large and unified response as soon as it started, officials said. Crews from the Anchorage Fire Department, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and the State Forestry Division fought the blaze. Anchorage police remained on site to manage traffic and prepare for possible evacuations. Anchorage fire officials said they handed operations over to the state late Thursday night.
This big column of gray smoke rising from East Anchorage on a hot afternoon sounded the alarm.
But Boyd said several factors made this fire different from the one in late May that sparked brief but serious concerns about a major forest fire in Hillside.
For one, the winds pushed the flames toward an area previously burned in 2019, Boyd said. Then several drops of retardant from an air tanker collected in the head of the fire. Ground crews worked the perimeters of the fire and a forestry helicopter dropped buckets of water.
And the fire was bordered by a creek and a winding dog sled trail from Tozier Track that served as a firebreak that helped slow the fire’s spread, he said Friday. “It provided us with a break yesterday. Otherwise, he would have run.