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Wildfires Are Raging in Alaska: Here’s What Travelers Need to Know

By Jenna Schnuer

08.26.19

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Highway travel in Southcentral Alaska right now can mean occasional road closures, limited visibility, and blowing embers. Visitors should get the latest updates before hitting the road.

Photo by the Alaska Division of Forestry/Shutterstock

Highway travel in Southcentral Alaska right now can mean occasional road closures, limited visibility, and blowing embers. Visitors should get the latest updates before hitting the road.

The fires burning on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Mat-Su Valley are having an impact on visitors to Southcentral Alaska. Get the facts.

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Southcentral Alaska’s summer is ending as it began: with devastating wildfires and smoke. July was the hottest month in recorded history in Anchorage and the rest of Southcentral Alaska, with very little rainfall.

Three of the fires raging right now—the McKinley, Deshka Landing, and North Fork fires—are thought to have been caused by humans, with a combination of drought and high winds kicking them into high gear. (As of Friday, the North Fork Fire, near Homer, was nearing containment, and the ready alert for evacuation was canceled.)

Where are the fires?

At present, several fires are burning in some of Southcentral Alaska’s most popular tourist areas: The two largest fires are the McKinley Fire and the Swan Lake Fire, and several smaller outbreaks are causing concern throughout the region. Hotshot crews from around the state have been joined by others from around the country to fight back. 

  • The McKinley Fire (just under 4,000 acres, with 46 percent containment as of Monday morning) is burning south of Talkeetna around the town of Willow. The fire has already caused devastation to homes and businesses in the area. A second fire burning near Willow, the 1,400-acre Deshka Landing Fire, was reported about 40 percent contained, as of Sunday.
  • The Swan Lake Fire (nearly 157,000 acres and at 20 percent containment as of Monday morning) is burning near Cooper Landing. For summer travelers and business owners on the Kenai Peninsula, the fire has slammed straight into the tail end of high season for tourism. Residents and businesses in the town of Cooper Landing are still attending to daily life but have been told to stay ready to evacuate if necessary. The Upper Kenai Lake is currently closed to the public, leaving fishermen and guides on dry land. But at a community meeting Wednesday night, local businesses asked that at least a portion of the Upper Kenai River be reopened for some walk-in or drift-boat fishing. The hotshot crew in command of the area’s fire containment will reevaluate once they have better control of the blaze.  
  • The Caribou Lake Fire (900 acres, 20 percent containment) is burning northeast of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. 

If you’re traveling in Southcentral Alaska 

One of the biggest concerns for visitors and people all through Southcentral Alaska is the air quality—both near and far from the immediate fire areas. People with breathing issues or other illnesses should take sensible precautions. It’s recommended that everyone stay indoors if outdoor air quality drops. Check air quality conditions on the Division of Air Quality website.

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As of Monday morning, the Sterling Highway, the 138-mile segment of Highway 1 that links the Seward Highway with Homer, is closed between miles 53 and 71. The highway is the only route so travelers already in the area should hold tight until the highway reopens. Several drivers posted videos on Sunday evening of a frightening drive along the Sterling, with burning embers and ashy debris seen blowing across the road. 

The Parks Highway (the 323-mile road that runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks, passing Denali National Park) is open, but drivers should expect long delays and poor air quality. 

When the roads are open, some sections may be limited to one lane with cars being led by a pilot car. Travelers driving in the state should make sure they fill up with gas as often as possible, in case of long delays, and keep extra water, food, and other basics in their car. For up-to-the-minute information about highway conditions, visit 555.alaska.gov

Although the Alaska Railroad had a temporary closure for trains north of Anchorage up to Denali National Park and Fairbanks, trains are, mostly, up and running again. The trains are running slower than usual, due to fire activity and visibility issues caused by smoke. (During the fire disruption last week, the railroad transferred passengers around fire-struck areas by bus.) 

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If you are already in Alaska as part of a land tour, ask your tour company or the guides about emergency evacuation procedures, if they haven’t already gone over the details. One of the larger tour operators in the region, Princess Cruises—which, in addition to ships, offers land tours and operates hotels—is monitoring the Swan Lake Fire, burning in the vicinity of its Kenai Princess hotel. Air quality notices are posted daily at the hotel’s front desk, and all of its hotels have masks available for guests and employees. The company is also mobilizing motorcoaches and developing alternate transportation options in case evacuation becomes necessary.

If you have a trip to Alaska planned for the coming weeks, of course, call to confirm that any tours you’ve booked are still running and, if they aren’t, what other options are being offered. Hotels in Southcentral report cancellations on upcoming reservations, so be sure to keep in contact with hotels and other lodgings in affected areas about the current conditions. Regular updates are posted by the agencies fighting the fires, and local businesses and residents are staying on top of the news.

How to help

You can help Alaskans who have lost homes and businesses to the fires by contacting or donating to the Red Cross in Alaska. To donate food and other pet necessities to those rescuing and offering places to stay for dogs, cats, and other pets, visit the Mat-Su Animal Shelter’s Facebook page. Pet Emergency Treatment in Anchorage is helping animals in need of medical treatment from the wildfires and needs volunteers.

>>Next: How to Plan Your First Trip to Alaska

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