Northern Exposure

Fighting the McHugh Creek Fire, AK

To paraphrase John Steinbeck,

“The best laid plans of mice and men, go oft awry”.

Thanks to the McHugh Creek Wildfire, we rapidly changed our recent travel plans to accommodate Mother Nature.

On the plus side?  An unplanned train trip on the Alaska Railroad to Whittier provided an unexpected view of the fire and the battle raging against it.

McHugh Creek Fire Alaska railroad

Helicopters fighting fire alaska
McHugh Creek Fire Alaska

McHugh Creek Wildfire

Last week company came.  My parents and nephew Hayden spent a few days in AK.  While they were here, we made reservations to tour Prince William Sound by boat.

The plan was to drive to Whittier, but that idea was in serious jeopardy.  A fire south of Anchorage near McHugh Creek erupted July 16th.  Winds and dry conditions forced traffic to a standstill on July 18th as the fire exploded. Flames burned down to the Seward Highway.

Reports of a 3-4 hour wait on the only road south during dip-netting and high tourist season caused more than a few headaches.  The road closed for a time, and I wondered how we were going to get through on July 19th.

McHugh Creek Fire AK
Alaska Wildfire Helicopter

Take the Train Instead

Not wanting to lose our deposit, I called the Alaska Railroad.  They remained open and assured us that we could get through!  What I thought was a big headache at first, instead had a silver lining.  Front row seats to see the fire.

We boarded early and relaxed as the train set off at a leisurely pace through South Anchorage.  Bridger found a moose cow and calf in the forest along the tracks; always a treat.  Waterfowl in Potter’s Marsh busied themselves with morning feeding.  They provided the kids a laugh with their displays of “bottoms up”!

As the traincars rounded the bend, and neared Beluga Point on the Turnagain Arm, we saw smoke and several helicopters dipping buckets into the water.  Although traffic was slowly moving through, viewpoints were closed.

The train however, stopped for about 15 minutes. That allowed us to watch the firefight on either side of the rails.

Helicopter Turnagain Arm

Aerial Assault

Due to the terrain, firefighters were fighting by air only at that point.  4-5 helicopters dipped buckets into the ocean, swung up over the highway and released water onto the flames.  I haven’t been that close to the action before. Fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch.  That’s usually about where we watch Dall sheep up in the cliffs.

Even shooting through window glass, the pictures came out pretty good despite some strange reflections and water spots.  Summer took the shot of the helicopter dumping water above.  Not bad for a 14 year old. 

The train moved on, and we made our way through the smokey Chugach mountains to Whittier.   Turns out, taking the train was a great choice.  It felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity.  

Fighting Fires Alaska

While I’m glad we were able to view it, the location of the fire was scary.  Two subdivisions on either side stood in jeopardy which firefighters were protecting.  At last report this week, between 800-900 acres had burned.  Recent rains have helped bring it under some control and hopefully loss of land and wildlife is minimal.


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