Officials: McKinley Fire has burned 51 homes, 3 businesses, 80 outbuildings

Kale Casey, left, with the Alaska Division of Forestry and Ken Barkley from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough update reporters on the McKinley Fire outside the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla Friday morning. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Officials dealing with the McKinley Fire burning between Willow and Talkeetna released an assessment Friday of damage since the blaze ignited last weekend.

Ken Barkley, director of emergency services for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, told reporters outside the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla that 51 homes were lost to the wildfire. In addition, three businesses in the area also burned, along with approximately 80 outbuildings.

On Friday, officials with state and local agencies, as well as the American Red Cross, informed property owners from within the fire’s perimeter about the status of their homes. The sports complex, which is serving as an evacuation shelter, was closed to members of the press to protect people’s privacy.

“It’s very hard to find out that everything you own is gone,” Barkley said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s something you never want to have to do again.”

About 60 people have been staying at the Wasilla shelter overnight, with more staying in RVs and trucks in the parking lot.

Officials cautioned that the fire is still extremely active and could intensify on Saturday because of a shifting wind pattern. By Friday night, 380 firefighters are expected to be combating the blaze, aided by air assets.

Though residents are learning about the status of their property, they are still not allowed to reenter the fire perimeter and return to homes that may be left standing.

“Reentry discussion won’t even happen until after this weekend,” said Kale Casey, public information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.

One of the biggest hazards facing fire crews right now is falling trees. Because this summer’s drought has dried out the land much deeper than usual, tree’s root systems are failing at a higher-than-normal rate. Even Alaska State Troopers have begun carrying chainsaws because routes in and out of the fire areas are frequently blocked off after they have entered.

The drought index in the area is “off the charts,” according to Casey, even compared to other recent high-fire years.

“It’s very dry. It’s very hot. It’s very dangerous,” Casey said.

The Red Cross is beginning to work with residents who lost homes to secure funds for them and figure out a future place to stay for the winter. People without homes will stay at the Menard Center. Over half have already moved on, staying with family or friends. Not all are permanent residents, but Barkley said many are.

Officials will continue informing residents about the status of their property throughout Friday.

“Not all of them have shown up,” Barkley said. “Most already know.”

Numerous chaplains were on hand at the evacuation center, along with four therapy dogs to help provide comfort to people.

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