TALKEETNA, Alaska — Pilot cars began shepherding motorists through a previously-closed stretch of Alaska’s George Parks Highway for several hours Saturday after an unusual combination of high winds and dry weather sparked six blazes in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
"Firefighters continue to work furiously to contain two wildfires burning about 20 miles apart on the opposite side of the Parks Highway, one of which temporarily closed the highway between mileposts 88 to 93," the Alaska Division of Forestry said in a release.
An air tanker, a five-person task force of firefighters from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson and a five-member task force from the Anchorage Fire Department and three more crews would join the late-night effort, according to officials.
More than 20 evacuees had arrived at the Red Cross shelter by 9 p.m. Saturday after the McKinley Fire sparked mandatory evacuations along five miles of the rural highway. The blaze burned about half a mile east of the highway near Mile 91.
Residents seeking to evacuate people were allowed through, but pet owners were not allowed through.
The blaze was reported at 4:20 p.m. AKT, one of a string of blazes the Alaska Division of Forestry attributed to power lines affected by wind and falling trees.
Smoke-jumper crews were dispatched as well as an air tanker and a helicopter. Crews also battled the 200-acre Deshka fire near Mile 68 of the Parks Highway Saturday.
Public radio station KTNA gave community updates despite internet and landline services being out of commission. The station reported the road reopening and that rail service was stopped five miles from the fire line after flames crossed the tracks and headed west toward the highway.
Red Cross volunteer and retired educator Matt Clark said the winds were unusual but the dry conditions were especially unexpected as August is usually marked by wet weather.
The area was under a burn ban due to extreme fire conditions.