It's mushers helping mushers as Alaska wildfire tears through Iditarod country

It's mushers helping mushers as Alaska wildfire tears through Iditarod country
Steve Charles sits alongside his sled dog, Bridger, at an American Red Cross evacuation center in Houston, Alaska. Many mushers had to evacuate not only themselves but their dogs after a fast-spreading wildfire sprang up near Willow, Alaska. (Mark Thiessen / AP)

As the wildfire grew on Sunday, Lisbet Norris did what any third-generation musher in the dog-racing capital of Alaska would do. After seeing if she could help at the fire scene up the road, she returned home to pack up her 100 Siberian huskies and bring them to safety.

"Running dogs is my life," Norris, 27, said Wednesday by telephone from Underdog Feeds, the Wasilla, Alaska, supply store run by her family that has given shelter to upward of 500 dogs from the fire burning in nearby Willow.


Norris, who has run the famed Iditarod dog sled race twice, was lucky to have saved her animals — some others were not so fortunate, she said.

"Several mushers have lost everything," she said. Donations are being taken at the feed store and through the Willow Dog Mushers Association, which represents the community of dog lovers and racers in the sparsely populated chunk of Alaska hit this year by wildfires.

Most people were aware of the dangers that had been discussed at a recent meeting of the Mushers Association. They also began to consider disaster plans.

"People were worried about a bad fire season," Norris said. "It's been hot and dry, and there was a low snow year. That all leads to fires."

The dog racers' worst fears came true Sunday when fire broke out around Mile 77 on the Parks Highway in Willow. The so-called Sockeye fire has burned about 7,500 acres along the highway, the main route between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

"The fire was terrifying," said Norris, who traveled from her home around Mile 66 to Mile 77. "The large smoke plume was pretty hard to ignore. The forest was on fire. It was wild and uncontained and scary as hell."

After being trapped for about five hours, Norris made it home, where she and her family loaded up their dogs and brought them to the store, around Mile 49.

"The really tragic thing about this fire is that it hit the most populated area in Willow," she said of the region, that has fewer than 2,000 people.

No humans have been injured in the Sockeye fire, Tim Mowry, the public information officer for the state Forestry Division, said Wednesday. But at least 25 primary structures — houses and businesses — have been destroyed along with about 20 secondary buildings, such as cabins and sheds.

More than 50 fires of varying sizes are burning in the state, about a dozen of them started in recent days. The worst year for fires was 2004, when more than 7 million acres burned. The current damage is around 200,000 acres, though it is still early, Mowry said.

"We expect the number to grow, but this is pretty normal at this point," he said.

What is not usual is to have two fires burning in the Anchorage area. Both fires — Sockeye near Willow and the smaller Card Street fire, where about 2,600 acres have burned near the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge — are under investigation. Both are believed to have been caused by people, though the exact cause is not known.

"This is all weather-dependent," he said. "If we get some rain, things will settle down. It has just been hot and dry this year."

At least 500 personnel have been battling the major blazes around Anchorage. But because of its iconic status, much of the attention has focused on the dog situation around Willow, Mowry said.


"It's a big mushing community, and they are a pretty close-knit community where everybody helps each other out," he said. "It's dog mushers helping out other dog mushers."