- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A wildfire north of Anchorage expanded dramatically Sunday as it burned nearly 2 square miles of timber and forced the evacuation of about 20 homes.

The human-caused blaze burning near Willow Sunday has also prompted the closure of the Parks Highway.

The fast-moving fire was called in at 1:15 p.m. and reported at two acres, said Tim Mowry, spokesman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, by phone from Fairbanks. By 3 p.m. the fire covered 80 acres, an hour later was burning 200 acres, and by 8 p.m. about 1,200 acres were charred, or nearly 2 square miles.

“It’s doing what fires do,” Mowry said. “It’s got a little wind behind, it has a lot of fuel and it’s grown.”

Mowry says there have been no reports of any injuries or damage to homes.

Firefighters are expecting that with higher humidity during the overnight hours the wildfire’s growth will slow somewhat.

Willow is in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough about 40 miles north of Anchorage. The more than 2,000 rural residents are spread between Miles 60 and 80.7 of the Parks Highway. The community is bordered on the west by the Susitna River.

The fire jumped to both sides of the highway running between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Mowry said. Emergency officials closed the road near mile 77, and borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said drivers were urged to stay out of the area. Mowry expected the roadway would remain closed at least through the night.

The fire has been dubbed the Sockeye Fire for the avenue in Willow where the fire started and where the homes were evacuated quickly after the fire was reported. “That was within the first half-hour after it was reported,” Mowry said.

Mowry said Sunday night that the figure of 20 evacuated homes was expected to increase.

He said that the evacuation area had increased in size, but didn’t have an estimate on the number of people living in that zone.

News reports said a few dozen people had evacuated to a shelter at the Willow Community Center.

The fire was caused by people, but Mowry did not have details on how it started.

The response was swift and strong because of the fire’s proximity to homes. “We’re throwing everything we can at it at this point,” Mowry said.

By midafternoon, tankers from Palmer and Fairbanks were dropping retardant on the fire, and a helicopter was dropping loads of water. A second helicopter was on its way from Kenai.

Three water-scooping aircraft were due to arrive from Fairbanks.

On the ground, firefighters from the Division of Forestry were battling the blaze. Three 20-member crews from Kenai, Palmer and Fairbanks also were headed for the fire, Mowry said.

“It’s a dynamic situation,” he said.

Emergency officials set up an evacuation center for displaced families at the Willow Community Center at Mile 69.7 mile Parks Highway.

___

AP writer Bob Seavey contributed to this report.

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