Alaska has an amazing way of demonstrating just how little real ‘control’ we humans can exert upon this awesome state and yesterday we saw another humbling example of this truism. My friend Mark stopped in around 14:30 and told me a wildfire was burning to the south around Mile 78 of the Parks Highway. We immediately turned on the television but had to wait until 17:00 to get an Anchorage newscast; from it we learned a wildfire was burning out of control along the western side of the Parks at Mile 76 and had jumped the Parks Highway and was now burning along the east side as well. The state troopers had closed the Parks at Mile 78 to any traffic south bound; they were also diverting folks trying to drive north. At that time the fire was believed to be about 30 acres in size. Around 17:20 we decided to make the 7 mile trip to Cubby’s – a small grocery store – at the intersection of the Spur and the Parks Highway. As we approached the entrance to Cubby’s from the Parks we could see a huge cloud to the south along with the upwelling of ash brown smoke. This was our first glimpse of what was to become the Sockeye Wildfire.
The parking lot of Cubby’s was filled and inside it was a mess; many locals and tourists didn’t even know there was a fire and those that did were scrambling. The RVer’s were buying anything they could grab and many tourists in cars were panicking because they needed to get south. Few people had even the scant information we possessed so we disseminated what little we knew to the crowds. Upon finishing our shopping we headed back to the Spur; in so doing we saw a trooper parked on the side of the road stopping folks southbound on the Parks. They were allowing anyone access who lived at Mile 80 or further north; all others were being diverted to Talkeetna or asked to head north. Driving north on the Spur I saw three large Princess Cruise Lines buses pulled off on the side of the road; I’m sure they were trying to figure out what to do. As tourist season is in full bloom most of the rooms in Talkeetna were occupied and I’m sure by Sunday evening there was no lodging to be had in the village or outlying areas.
Our weather was about the worst it could be with blazing sunshine, an air temp of 84 F along with 30+ mph northerly winds and a relative humidity of just 22%. Sadly today is the same but as of 13:12 AKDT the outdoor temp is already 84.2 F with just 26% RH and 25+ mph northerly winds. Given our maximum temps are now occurring around 20:00 we will most likely set a record with temps near if not exceeding 90 F. Because of the northerly winds this area is safe; in this sense we are extremely lucky. But the fire continues to burn out of control and within a bit over 12 hours it has grown from just 30 acres to more than 6,200 acres; that’s an increase in size of almost 207 times!! The Parks is currently open but is just one lane through the Willow area and vehicles can only drive this area when led by a pilot car. Given the usual amount of summer traffic on the Parks coupled with a very busy tourist season there are a lot of rightly worried people. Sadly many tourists are getting a taste of what it is like to live in Alaska!
Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward
The tenuous hold we humans have in ‘The Great Land’ is highlighted by this fire; in just 24 hours the blaze has cut the only road from Anchorage and the Palmer/Wasilla area to the interior and is destroying homes and properties. Normally the state allows wildfires to burn uncontrolled unless lives or property are in danger; in this case they are working feverishly to contain the fire. Six ‘hot shot’ teams were flown in from the lower 48 last night and are on the fire lines along with every available firefighting team from the state. As of this writing it has spread to the outskirts of the Nancy Lake area which is large and densely populated – at least by Alaskan terms – with expensive homes, summer cabins and lots of docks with lake access. Just to the SE is Houston; it really lies at the northernmost reaches of the Wasilla area. These folks are being evacuated as are those in the Nancy Lake area.
Iditarod contestant Jan Steve’s Willow home
Alaskans know Mother Nature will largely do as she will and there’s little we can do about it but go with the flow. But we can support our neighbors and do all we can to help them not just survive this disaster but also rebuild. For the near term just trying to organize to assist them is a huge chore; no one knows just how much work will be required in the future to help them re-establish their lives. Not that most of us needed the reminder but we humans exist in this majestic state at the benevolence of Mother Nature; as such we must always remember she can be a fickle landlord. Please say a prayer for all our neighbors to the immediate south and for all the brave firefighters!
Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow
I’m truly struggling with ambivalence regarding writing this piece for reasons which will soon become clear; I just do not want to appear elitist or condescending but by the same token I, along with many of my neighbors and fellow ‘Talkeetna-ites’, are not pleased of late. Perhaps most irritating to me is the wonderfully immense Alaskan silence is now being broken on a routine basis by the sounds of human beings…in this case the tourists! The final straw in breaking my ambivalence regarding writing on this subject came just 18 minutes earlier when the peaceful silence of the pre-08:00 Saturday morning was shattered by a distant siren. It occurred to me that I have only heard sirens three times since I moved up here almost ten months back; the previous two times were late last summer and then once in late November for a local dwelling fire. But this has not been the only assault upon my precious Alaskan silence; across the last three weeks there has been a gradually increasing influx of vehicular traffic into Talkeetna. The road now regularly sees lines of RVs, campers, travel trailers and those lousy, noisy motorcycles! It’s hard to even drive in town because there are people walking everywhere; last night I had to wait the passage of a throng of tourists just to make the left turn from the Spur onto Second Street to get to KTNA for my newscast. The bad thing is the locals tell me ‘tourist season’ normally doesn’t begin until this (Memorial Day) weekend; in addition they’ve told me this is far more people than is normal for May visits. I’m wondering just what it will be like come July..?
With all this said I must confess that I am only too well aware that from 1996 through 2005 I was one of these tourists. And, yes, I did ride a motorcycle in the lower 48 although mine was a vintage BMW K 75 and was very quiet. In addition when I visited Alaska I was always respectful of the rules and signage and especially of private property. Sadly I’ve already heard reports of RVs ripping down ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs and setting up. A small unopened camping area south of town had its barrier illegally removed and now there’s a myriad of RVs and trailers occupying the site; when the owners do finally return they are in for a surprise! I will no longer walk the dogs even close to the Spur because its gone from seeing one vehicle every hour or so to seeing tens of vehicles every few minutes. In short so much of what I loved about this area in terms of the silence, the slow pace and the lack of human density have all disappeared in the dust clouds behind trailers and RVs and the crowds of people milling about the town.
My sense of fairness will not allow me to just rag against the tourists; I know this is Talkeetna’s life blood and without the tourist dollars each year this magical little town wouldn’t be half of what it is but I already long for the quiet and slow pace that exists from middle September through early May. But this is also my first experience with living in a location that draws a large tourist crowd and thus far I’m finding little I like about this facet of Talkeetna life! Its been a while since I really struggled with the duality of ambivalence but I’m now getting a chance to once again experience the instability of these feelings as I try to find common ground. To be honest I can largely ignore the influx by remaining in this immediate area and trying to stay away from the town; there’s no reason for any tourists to be on East Barge Drive unless they’re lost. But I cannot escape the noise that they bring with them and this is unsettling. In addition my routine runs into Palmer and Anchorage on behalf of the Pantry are now greatly complicated by the plethora of trailers, campers, RVs and rubber- necking tourists now crowding the Parks Highway. It’s easy to develop a definite dislike for these intruders until I remember that I was one of ‘those’ folks just a few years back. And so once again the ambivalence manifests its unsettling presence in my existence.
In the grand scheme this influx of ‘the great unwashed masses’ lasts only three months and a couple of weeks (mid-May though August); after that time life will return to the ‘norm’ that I so enjoy. All these people pump significant dollars into the Alaskan economy in general and into Talkeetna in particular so their presence has to at the very least be tolerated. I am now coming to really understand that observation I heard not long after I moved up here; that Alaskans would have open season on tourists were it not for their dollars. I’m sure most tourists would view this as a bit of rural Alaskan humor but the truth is it’s an accurate appraisal. However, I’m just going to have to learn to be more ‘Alaskan’ in this regard and just deal with the issues brought about by tourism. Come September it will be interesting to see whether the tourists have displaced the mosquitoes with respect to being the biggest pain in the ass during Alaskan summers. Right now the jury is out and given what I’ve seen to date I sure wouldn’t be willing to make a call!
This image of ‘downtown’ Talkeetna was taken last September when the number of tourists had already decreased and we actually had precipitation!