Southwest Area Fires Surpass 400,000 Acres

Alaska’s Division of Forestry is staffing five fires in the Southwest Area, defending two gold mines and multiple structures at the sites, the village of Red Devil, the historic town of Flat, and several cabins along the Kuskokwim River. 400,813 acres have burned in Southwest Alaska this year.

There are 65 active fires in the Southwest Area. No new fires were reported Monday, and isolated showers did little to slow the spread of area fires. Aerial observers are re-mapping fires to update their size and status, and they are reporting significant growth on many fires. Dry vegetation is fueling fire spread and challenging suppression efforts where water is not available. Fire managers prioritize resources to protect life, property, commercial and historical values.

The DNR McGrath Field Office is staffing fires with logistical and operations-dedicated aircraft, smokejumpers, helitak firefighters, and 20-person hand crews, including four interagency hotshot crews. Firefighters are clearing vegetation around structures, setting up sprinklers and attacking fires where they can be successful.

Staffed Fires

The Kolmakof Fire (#490) started by lightning on July 10, 20 miles east of Aniak. The 9,516-acre fire is burning in mixed spruce and is threatening multiple cabins along the Kuskokwim River. Seven smokejumpers are in place and five helitak firefighters from McGrath are mobilizing to the fire Tuesday to assist in structure protection operations.

The Smith Creek Fire (#534), formerly the Grouse Creek Fire, started by lightning on July 12, 13 miles northwest of Crooked Creek. The fire is 3,916 acres in size and burning in black spruce, threatening structures at the Donlin Mine. Eight smokejumpers and the 20-person Dalton Hotshot Crew is in place to provide structure protection. Non-essential mine personnel have been relocated.

The McCally Creek Fire (#487) started by lightning on July 10 and is threatening the village of Red Devil. Eight smokejumpers initially staffed the fire before disengaging and relocating to the village. The Pioneer Peak Hotshots and the Inyo Hotshots are also in place, conducting structure protection operations to protect the village.

The Hidden Creek Fire (#464) began on July 9 and is 20 miles northwest of Nikolai in the area of the Nixon Fork Gold Mine. Seven smokejumpers, Idaho’s 20-person Highland Fire Crew, a 14-person fire crew from Chevak, and the Bear Divide Hotshots are in place at the mine. Firefighters are setting up pumps, hoselays and sprinkler systems on area structures, which have not been impacted by the fire. The 396-acre fire is burning in mixed spruce and hardwoods, and the cause is under investigation.

The Boulder Creek Fire (#551) started by lightning on July 13, less than a mile northeast of Flat. Six helitak firefighters are completing structure protection, aided by a retardant-dropping air tanker. Six helitak firefighters are in place to provide structure protection. Now uninhabited, Flat is where aviating pioneer Wiley Post stopped on his around-the-world trip in 1933. Post crashed his plane on take-off, and local residents helped him fix a broken propeller, enabling him to complete his historic trip in eight days.

Unstaffed Fires (selected)

The Old Grouch Top Fire (#174) started by lightning on June 5, about 35 miles northwest of McGrath. The fire has burned 281,774 acres of mixed spruce, tundra and hardwoods, and is the largest fire in the nation. The fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Iditarod River Fire (#553) started by lightning on July 14, 12 miles southwest of Flat. It is burning 600 acres and burning in black spruce, with no known values at risk. The fire is being monitored by air.

The Aghaluk Creek Fire (#544) started by lightning on July 13, near the Kuskokwim River, 25 miles southwest of Crooked Creek. The fire is 1,000 acres in black spruce and tundra. A five-member helitak crew from McGrath provided structure protection on a nearby cabin and outbuildings, and the fire is now unstaffed.

The Tundra Lake Fire (#474) started by lightning on July 10 and is 50 miles northwest of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, about 10 miles south of Lime Village. Eight smokejumpers defended a cabin and a Native Alaskan allotment near the fire before being demobilized on Saturday. The unstaffed fire is 450 acres in size and 90% active.

The Dennis Creek Fire (#549) started by lightning on July 13, 40 miles east of Nikolai. The unstaffed fire is less than an acre in size and burning in black spruce and tundra. The nearest cabins are six miles from the fire, which will be monitored by air.

The Peary Creek Fire (#536) was caused by lightning on July 12, 15 miles north of Crooked Creek. The fire has burned 2,200 acres of black spruce, and there is no additional information on the fire and it is being monitored by aircraft.

The Hoholitna Fire (#528) started by lightning on July 12, 15 miles south of Stony River. The unstaffed fire is 80 acres in size and 100% active in black spruce and tundra. No known values are at risk and the fire will be monitored by air.

The East Stoney River Fire (#523) started by lightning on July 12, four miles east of Stoney River. The fire is burning in black spruce, hardwoods and tundra and is 5 acres in size. No known values are at risk and the fire will be monitored by air.

The Snipes Creek Fire (#467) started by lightning on July 9. The fire is burning in tundra in the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and 20 acres in size. No known values are at risk, and the fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Chilchitna Headwaters Fire (#476) is burning in black spruce, 12 miles northwest of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and 250 acres in size No known values are at risk, and the fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Tishimna Lake Fire (#521) started by lightning on July 12, 25 miles northwest of Lime Village. The fire is 10% active, burning in black spruce and tundra with several area cabins threatened. No known values are at risk and the fire will be monitored by air.

The Devil’s Elbow Fire (#496) started by lightning on July 11, 60 miles south of McGrath. The fire is burning in black spruce and hardwoods and is estimated to be 3,000 acres. Cabins, Native Alaskan allotments and a sawmill operation are threatened, Two helitak firefighters from McGrath have completed structure protection at the cabins.

The Holokuk River Fire (#510) started by lightning on July 11, 50 miles southwest of Red Devil. The fire is 325 acres in size and 10% active in black spruce. No known values are at risk and the fire is being monitored by air.

The Holokik Mountain Fire (#511) started by lightning on July 11, 25 miles south of Crooked Creek. The fire is burning 25 acres of black spruce and tundra, within two miles of Native Alaskan allotments. The fire will be monitored by air.

The Ethel Creek Fire (#516) started by lightning on July 11, 60 miles northwest of Nondalton. The fire is burning 48 acres in tundra, with Native Alaskan allotments four miles to the east. The fire is being monitored by air.

The Spike Mountain Fire (#514) started by lightning on July 11, 25 miles south of Red Devil. The fire is burning 60 acres of black spruce and is 100% active. No known values are at risk, and the fire is being monitored by air.

The Discovery Creek Fire (#509) started by lightning on July 11, 25 miles south of Aniak. The fire is burning in black spruce, and the Faulkner Homestead is the closest value at risk. The fire is being monitored by air.

The West Devils Elbow Fire (#504) started by lightning on July 11, 20 miles northeast of Red Devil. The fire is 20 acres in size with no known values at risk. It is being monitored by air.

The Horn Foothills Fire (#506) started by lightning on July 11. 20 miles southwest of Crooked Creek. The fire is burning 600 acres in black spruce and tundra, with no known values at risk. The fire is being monitored by air.

The Little Titnuk Fire (#513) started by lightning on July 11, 18 miles southeast of Red Devil. The fire is 600 acres in size and burning in black spruce, with no known values at risk. The fire is being monitored by air.

The Door Mountains Fire (#517) started by lightning on July 11, and is burning 30 miles southwest of Lime Village. The 1,000-acre fire is burning in black spruce with no known values at risk. The fire is being monitored by air.

The Molybdenum Mountains Fire (#507) started by lightning on July 11, 15 miles northeast of Aniak. The fire is 60 acres in size and 90% active in black spruce and tundra. No known values are at risk, and the fire is being monitored by air.

The Taylor Mountain Fire (#515) started by lightning on July 11, 60 miles south of Red Devil. The fire is 350 acres and burning in black spruce, five miles south of the Taylor Mountains Mining Camp. The fire is being monitored by air.

The Door Creek Fire (#475) was caused by lightning on July 10. The fire is 15 miles southwest of Lime Village, burning in black spruce and tundra, 30 acres in size and 100% active. No known values are at risk, and the fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Stony River Flats Fire (#477) was caused by lightning on July 10. The fire is 12 miles northwest of Lime Village, burning in black spruce and tundra, and 150 acres in size. There is a cabin approximately five miles from the fire with defensible space around it, and it is not threatened at this time, and the fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Upper Falls Fire (#479) was caused by lightning on July 10. The fire is 12 miles north of the Togiak Wildlife Refuge, burning in tundra and brush, 15 acres in size and 100% active. No known values are at risk, and the fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Quicksilver Creek Fire (#478) was caused by lightning on July 10. The fire is 15 miles north of the Togiak Wildlife Refuge, burning in tundra and brush, 5 acres in size and 50% active. No known values are at risk, and the fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Barometer Mountain Fire (#491) was caused by lightning on July 10. Eight smokejumpers mobilized to the fire before relocating to Red Devil to protect the village. The fire is burning in tundra and black spruce, about one mile southwest of Red Devil.

The Barometer Foothills Fire (#499) was started by lightning on July 11, within a mile southwest of Red Devil. The 30-acre fire is one of three fires near Red Devil, and fire managers have retrieved smokejumpers from area fires to help defend the village.

The Jump Peak Fire (#488) was caused by lightning on July 10. The fire is smoldering in black spruce, less than an acre in size, approximately 7 miles northwest of Red Devil, and the fire is being monitored by aircraft.

The Pete Andrews Creek Fire (#457) was reported July 8, 10 miles west of Illiamna. Air tankers dropped retardant on the 1,300-acre fire to slow its progress. The fire is being monitored by air.

The Page Mountain Fire (#351) was started by lightning on June 22, 30 miles north of McGrath. The 31,150-acre fire is smoldering in mixed spruce, and firefighters have installed sprinklers on six area cabins and improved their defensible space.

“How Do They Do It? A Closer Look at the Dispatch Center in McGrath.”

Working at their consoles lined with computer screens and microphones, seven dispatchers at the McGrath Dispatch Center are working hard to keep track of all firefighting resources in Southwest Alaska, including aircraft and pilots, firefighters, equipment and supplies.

Fires in Alaska are often discovered by private and commercial pilots. Dispatchers gather these reports, often sorting through second and third-hand information to dispel rumors and confirm a new fire has started. The fire management officer (FMO) then prioritizes firefighting resources, and a dispatcher contacts the crew with a completed resource order for their assignment.

At the McGrath Field Office Dispatch Center, dispatchers coordinate with all units of the logistical and support staff, including the aircraft ramp, administration, facilities, kitchen and maintenance. When new crews arrive, dispatch contacts unit leaders to give operational briefings and providing housing, meals, equipment and supplies.

Accountability is the driving force of the dispatch center, and firefighters in the field must check in at least twice a day. A small sign posted in one corner of the dispatch center reads: “You may know where you are, and God may know where you are, but if dispatch doesn’t know where you are, you and God better be very good friends.”

The complexities of working in dispatch have changed over the years with computer applications including Integrated Fire Management, (IFM) Wildcad (computer assisted dispatch) the Resource Ordering and Status System (ROSS), and Automatic Flight Following (AFF). There are extensive reporting requirements for dispatchers, including radio logs and costs.

Dispatch training progresses with becoming a proficient Expanded Dispatch Recorder (ERDC), an Expanded Dispatch Support Dispatcher (EDSD), an Expanded Dispatch Supervisor (EDSP), and then an Expanded Dispatch Coordinator (EDC). Attributes of successful dispatchers include the ability to perform many tasks at once, with frequent distractions and interruptions.

Becky Metcalf supervises both MatSu-Southwest Area Dispatch Centers in Palmer and McGrath. Two of her four McGrath Dispatchers are emergency firefighters (EFF) and two are permanent seasonal employees, including Tommi Parker-Allen, Christine Harrington, Christine Taylor, and Erin Norback. “A bunch of rock stars” is how Metcalf describes her crew.

The McGrath Field Office Dispatch Center Staff on July 16, 2017. Photo: Mike McMillan, DNR
Christine Harrington takes a radio call from an incident commander in the field.
Photo: Mike McMillan, DNR.

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