Wildland firefighters from the Alaska Division of Forestry are mopping up a 15-acre wildfire that closed the Richardson Highway near Birch Lake for a short time on Friday night.
The MP 308.5 Richardson Hwy Fire was reported by a passing motorist on the north side of the highway at 6:25 p.m. Smoke and flames were visible from the highway and the caller stated the fire was growing rapidly.
The Division of Forestry mounted a swift and aggressive response with multiple aircraft and ground personnel that included engines and firefighters from State Forestry, Salcha Fire and Rescue and BLM Alaska Fire Service smokejumpers.
Division of Forestry helitack personnel estimated the size of the fire at 2.5 acres upon arrival. The fire was burning in black spruce with continuous fuels and winds out of the west. The helicopter began dropping water on the fire and an air tanker from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center at Fort Wainwright was called in to drop a load of retardant to slow the fire’s growth. Two CL-415 water-scooping aircraft from the AICC also responded to the fire to make multiple water drops on the fire.
A subdivision one-half mile to the east of the fire and more structures one-half mile southwest of the fire were threatened and firefighters began structure triage to assess the situation.
The Richardson Highway was closed from miles 308-310 for a short time due to reduced visibility caused by smoke and for safety of firefighting traffic and personnel on the road.
The air tanker and water scoopers worked on the left flank and head of the fire while Forestry personnel worked on the right flank. Personnel from Salcha Fire and Rescue worked along the highway to catch any spot fires that crossed the road. One spot fire was quickly extinguished.
A bulldozer was used to put a containment line around the fire perimeter and a van load of eight smokejumpers that was driven to the fire from Fort Wainwright worked on the left flank of the fire once aircraft had knocked the fire down and were released.
The Tanana Chiefs and White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack crews were pulled off the North Robertson Fire near Tok to respond to the fire and arrived 3-4 hours after the fire was reported to help with gridding and mop up. A Type 2 crew and engines from the Delta Area forestry office also responded to the fire.
Given the hot, dry conditions and initial rapid growth of the fire, the swift response and proximity to Birch Lake for quick turnaround time for the water scoopers and helicopter were critical in preventing the wildfire from developing into a much more serious incident. Ironically, the two water scooping aircraft used on the fire arrived in Alaska from the Lower 48 on Thursday in response to high fire danger in the Alaska Interior. The timing of their arrival couldn’t have been better.
The White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack Crew and Type 2 crews from Delta and Fairbanks remain at the fire today mopping up and gridding for any hotspots. The crews will likely be working on the fire for two or three days searching for and extinguishing hotspots to ensure the fire is contained.
The fire is believed to be human caused and is under investigation.