Firefighters are leap frogging from one fire to another to protect villages, cabins and other structures in Southwest Alaska after more than a dozen new wildfires were started by lightning strikes in the past three days.
The Alaska Division of Forestry reports that as of Wednesday morning there are 15 active fires burning in the area, which covers an 88-million acre swath of Southwest Alaska from McGrath to Dillingham. Six of the 15 fires are staffed with firefighters while the remainder are being monitored.
The highest priority fire remains the 1,000-acre Bell Creek Fire (#161) burning less than 2 miles from the village of Crooked Creek on the Kuskokwim River, about 110 miles southwest of McGrath.
There are 49 personnel working on the fire, including eight smokejumpers from the BLM Alaska Fire Service and two initial attack crews from the Alaska Division of Forestry.
The fire doubled in size on Tuesday and was active again on Wednesday, prompting fire managers to launch air tankers for retardant drops on the south edge of the fire closest to the village in hopes of slowing its progress. The fire is backing over a ridge toward the village. Firefighters abandoned attempts at direct attack on Tuesday and are focusing their efforts on building indirect line on the north edge of the village closest to the fire. Personnel are planning to conduct burnout operations today in that area to deprive the fire of fuel if it threatens to reach the village. Firefighters will also be plumbing structures on the northern edge of the villages with pumps, hoses and sprinklers.
The Pitka Fork Fire (#160), a 6,600-acre fire burning about 60 miles east of McGrath, also received attention on Tuesday. The McGrath dispatch office received multiple reports of increased fire activity and a detection aircraft was launched to assess any potential threat. Multiple structures were identified in the area and a load of smokejumpers and two air tankers were flown to the fire for structure protection.
Tankers dropped five loads of retardant around structures on the south side of the fire and smokejumpers prepped structures with pumps, hoses and sprinklers. Weather permitting, the smokejumpers plan to conduct burnout operations today to fortify structure protection measures that were taken.
Two new lightning-caused fires – the Black River Fire (#172) and Paiyun Creek Fire (#174) – were reported in the area on Tuesday but neither posed a significant threat.
The Black River Fire (#172) was reported 38 miles south of McGrath in a full protection area. Helitack was launched from McGrath to size up the fire and reported it to be 8 acres burning in mixed hardwoods.
An air tanker dropped one load of retardant to keep the fire from spreading into a spruce stand and a helicopter was used to drop water on the fire to keep it in check while helitack personnel on the ground worked to build line around the fire. Helitack personnel secured line around 60 percent of the fire Tuesday evening and the fire received light precipitation overnight. A Type 2 crew from Lower Kalskag was shuttled into the fire on Wednesday to continue building line and mop up.
Here’s a rundown of the other fires burning in the Southwest Area:
• Fire #146, Kenakuchuk Creek, 1,558 acres – Reported on June 3 in a limited protection area approximately 40 miles north of Dillingham. The fire was flown on Monday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and had grown by 558 acres. The fire was active on the southeastern side with three backing heads spreading east. The fire was approaching an area of numerous lakes and wetlands, which could slow its progress. No action has been taken on this fire, as no resources are threatened.
• Fire #152, Tubungaluk Creek, 280 acres – No action has been taken on this fire, which was reported Sunday in a limited protection area 31 miles northeast of Bethel in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The fire is burning between several bodies of water. A flight Tuesday evening showed the fire has grown 95 acres since Tuesday. The northwest side of the fire burning in tundra while the north, south and east sides of the fire have burned into either open water or wet, marshy areas.
• Fire #154, Pikmiktalik River, 430 acres – Reported on Sunday in a limited protection area 27 miles northeast of Bethel in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The fire is burning in tundra and grew by 130 acres since Tuesday. No action has been taken and the fire is being monitored by refuge aircraft and aircraft from State Forestry in McGrath.
• Fire #155, Spruce Creek, 35 acres – Reported on Sunday in a modified protection area approximately 30 miles west of McGrath. A Type 2 crew from Nikolai continued to make their way around the fire on Tuesday, gridding and extinguishing hotspots. Twenty-eight hotspots were found inside the 50-foot perimeter. The crew will concentrate on those areas today before moving further into the black.
• Fire #157, Brown Creek, 43 acres – Reported on Sunday in a full protection area approximately 35 miles west of McGrath. Fire personnel on Tuesday worked to secure the perimeter 20 feet in. A Type 2 crew from Nondalton completed one grid on the fire Tuesday and found 20 smokes. A second grid will be completed today before the crew demobilizes. The fire is 100 percent contained.
• Fire #158, American Creek, 10,000 acres – No action has been taken on this fire, which was reported on Sunday in a limited protection area approximately 42 miles west of McGrath. The fire was flown Tuesday evening and had grown 6,000 acres during the last 24 hours. Active crowning, torching and spotting were observed during Tuesday’s flight. Values were identified in the area but are not threatened at this time. The fire is being monitored.
• Fire #159, Little Yetna River, 1,000 acres – No action has been taken on this fire, which was reported on Sunday in a limited protection area approximately 100 miles southwest of McGrath. The fire was flown on Tuesday and was 80 percent active, spotting and torching in continuous black spruce. Nothing is threatened and the fire is being monitored.
• Fire #164, Ball Creek, 10,000 acres – No action has been taken on this fire, which was reported Sunday in a full protection area approximately 75 miles southwest of McGrath. The fire was flown on Tuesday evening and had grown 8,000 acres. It was 95 percent active in black spruce. Nothing is threatened by the fire and it will continue to be monitored.
• Fire #163, Sullivan Creek, 100 acres – No action has been taken on this fire, which was reported Sunday in a modified protection area approximately 45 miles east of McGrath. The fire was flown Tuesday evening and was smoldering in black spruce and tundra. The fire was only 5 percent active. The southeast flank of the fire was still back in the wind but a small creek may hold it due to low activity. Nothing is threatened and the fire will continue to be monitored.
• Fire #167, Akuliktuak River, 80 acres – Reported on Monday in a full protection area approximately 20 miles east of Bethel and about 5 miles east of the village of Kwethluk. Eight smokejumpers were deployed and had the fire 100 percent contained as of Wednesday morning.
• Fire #173, Kogruluk River, 200 acres – Reported on Monday in a limited protection area approximately 28 miles north of Bethel in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The fire was flown on Tuesday evening and was burning in tundra. No action has been taken on the fire, as no values are threatened.
• Fire #174, Paiyun Creek, 0.5 acres – Reported Tuesday afternoon in a limited protection area approximately 50 miles southeast of Bethel in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. No action was taken, as no resources are threatened.