July 19, 8:30 p.m. – Firefighters working on a wildfire burning near the Salcha River south of Fairbanks went from fighting fire to building bridges on Tuesday morning.
A rapid rise in the Salcha River due to heavy rain the previous 48 hours had firefighters scrambling to relocate campsites and helicopter landing zones, as well as moving firefighting equipment, fuel and other supplies to higher ground so it wasn’t swept down the river.
“We went from fighting fire to joking about filling sand bags,” Operations Chief Branden Petersen said.
At one point, Alaska Division of Forestry fire managers were debating whether or not to evacuate crews due to the danger posed by the high water but the water level began to drop at about 9 a.m. and is expected to continue dropping.
Despite the high water and rain the past few days that have made for challenging conditions for firefighters, crews remain actively engaged in suppressing the fire, according to fire managers.
“Crews have built bridges out to the fire line and they’re just sloshing around,” Petersen said. “Morale is really high.”
The Mid Salcha Fire remains at an estimated 1,170 acres and was 50 percent contained at the start of Monday’s operational shift. There were 124 personnel still working on the fire, though that number will likely drop in the next day or two as containment increases.
The fire is located about 15 air miles upriver from the Richardson Highway. It is one-half mile south of the river and 3 miles north of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Only two areas of smoke were seen during a reconnaissance flight on Tuesday morning and there was not evidence of much heat showing, Petersen said.
“The rain put a hurt on the fire,” said Petersen. “Thirty percent of the fire is under water. The flats where the fire is off the river corridor is all under water.”
The rain has washed considerable debris and deadfalls into the river channel, posing a hazard to boats transporting firefighters and firefighting equipment. The wind has also created problems by blowing down snags that have been loosened by the saturated soils.
The threat to cabins along the south side of the river has been reduced and firefighters are still focused on securing the fire perimeter closest to the cabins.
River users are advised to use caution due to the high water, debris and increased boat traffic transporting firefighters and equipment.
A temporary flight restriction has been placed over the fire and pilots should avoid flying in the area. To check on specifics of the TFR, pilots should go to http://tfr.faa.gov/tfr2/list.html.