Dramatic Wind Shift Pushes Shovel Creek Fire to the North

A dramatic wind shift produced by a passing thunderstorm Saturday night caused the Shovel Creek Fire (#319) northwest of Fairbanks to burn through an old retardant line and push north toward cabins along the Chatanika River, prompting an aggressive, late-night aerial response by firefighting personnel to slow the advance of the fire.

The fire, which was started by lightning on Friday June 21, is located 3 miles north of Murphy Dome, about 25 miles northwest of Fairbanks. Depending on weather conditions, smoke from this fire may drift into the Fairbanks area and surrounding in the coming weeks. The fire is burning in a Full protection area and the Division of Forestry ordered water-scooping aircraft, air retardant tankers and smokejumpers for initial attack. Burning in continuous black spruce, the fire grew quickly and was estimated at 300 acres by Friday night.

The Shovel Creek Fire and smoke column burning on the day it started. Photo shows continuous spruce trees divided by the 7 Mile Trail with rolling hills in the background.
The Shovel Creek Fire on the evening of June 21. Photo by Timothy Whitesell, Alaska Divison of Forestry.

The fire had been moving to the southeast earlier on Saturday but the change in wind direction at around 5 p.m. pushed the fire downhill toward the Chatanika River where there are several cabins. Water-scooping aircraft and air tankers dropped multiple loads of retardant and water on and around the fire to slow its spread toward the river. The fire advanced to about 1 ¼ miles from the closest cabin.

Seven smokejumpers were deployed late Saturday night to begin assessing possible structure protection measures for the cabins closest to the fire. There are about a half dozen cabins within 2 miles of the fire’s north flank.

The increased fire activity resulted in an acreage gain of 300-400 acres, fire managers estimated. Most of the new growth was to the west of the fire and the current size of the fire is estimated at 600-900 acres. The area around the fire received substantial precipitation Saturday night but the actual fire received only light rain.

Fire managers are focusing their efforts on keeping the fire sandwiched between Shovel Creek on the west and the 7 Mile Trail to the east. The 7 Mile Trail runs from the top of Murphy Dome down to the Chatanika River and the fire is paralleling the trail. Firefighters are working to prevent the fire from crossing  7 Mile Trail and burning over a ridge to the east where it could potentially get established in what is known as Blueberry drainage, the first in a series of drainages leading up to Murphy Dome.  

Four Type 1 Hotshot and Type 2 Initial Attack crews from the Lower 48 arrived at the fire late Saturday night and will be inserted into the fire today, joining one other Lower 48 Hotshot crew and a Type 2 Alaska hand crew. There are currently a total of 146 personnel assigned to the fire. The additional firefighters should substantially help bolster containment efforts.

On the south edge of the fire, closest to Murphy Dome, high alpine tundra at the top of the Shovel Creek drainage forms a natural barrier that will likely prevent the fire from spreading to the south toward Murphy Dome and subdivisions on the south side of the dome.

Crews are pumping water from Shovel Creek to lay hose lines along the lower portions of 7 Mile Trail and water tenders on top of Murphy Dome are being used to run water down the upper portion of the trail because it’s too steep to pump water up.

An Alaskan Type 2 Incident Management Team will take over management of the fire on Monday following an inbriefing today in Fairbanks.

Residents in the area are asked to avoid the Murphy Dome area due to the firefighting activity and the potential for interfering with fire personnel. A Temporary Flight Restriction is in place in the air space over the fire. Pilots are advised to check NOTAMS at https://tfr.faa.gov/save_pages/detail_9_0263.html.

People looking for more information on the fire, can call the Alaska Interagency Wildfire Information Office at (907) 356-5511 or go to  https://fire.ak.blm.gov/predsvcs/maps.php  “Wildland Fire Maps” (look for fire #319). The top right menu icon of four squares allows you to choose a background, while the magnifying glass allows you to zoom in. Please recognize that satellite points that show heat may be off and may not be a true representation of where fire activity is.

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