Southwest Area Staffing Five Fires, One New

The Alaska Division of Forestry is staffing five fires in the Southwest Area, defending two gold mines, the village of Red Devil, cabins along the Kuskokwim River, and cabins north of Nikolai. 400,958 acres have burned in Southwest Alaska in 2019, and 1.6 million total acres have burned across the state this year.

There are 65 active fires in the Southwest Area. One new fire was reported Tuesday. Isolated showers brought wetting rain to some areas, but did little to slow the spread of many fires.


Aerial observers are re-mapping fires to update their size and status, reporting growth on several fires. Dry vegetation is fueling fires where water is not available. Fire managers are prioritizing resources to protect life, property, commercial and historical values.

The McGrath Field Office is hosting smokejumpers, helitak firefighters, fixed-wing air tankers and logistical aircraft, helicopters and support staff. A crew of Southwest Area firefighters is being organized today from the villages of Hooper Bay, Nikolai, Shagaluk, and Nondalton.

Staffed Fires

The East Fork Fire (#591) started by lightning on July 16, five miles north of Nikolai. The 5-acre fire is burning in white spruce and hardwoods. Eight helitak firefighters responded from McGrath and have completed chainsaw line around the fire, and a 20-person Southwest Area Fire Crew is being mobilized to the incident.

The Kolmakof Fire (#490) started by lightning on July 10, 20 miles east of Aniak. The 10,200-acre fire is burning in mixed spruce and is threatening multiple cabins along the Kuskokwim River. Five helitak firefighters from McGrath and the Inyo Hotshots are in place clearing vegetation around three cabins, setting up sprinklers and planning structure protection operations.

The Smith Creek Fire (#534), started by lightning on July 12, 1 mile west of the Donlin Mine, and has burned into the Timber Creek Fire (#537) to the north. The fire is 4,700-acres and burning in black spruce, threatening structures at the Donlin Mine. One smokejumper and the Dalton Hotshots are in place, using heavy equipment on site to create control lines to protect 80 structures. 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. Three area fires have burned together, and the 2,334-acre fire is burning in mixed spruce. The Pioneer Peak Hotshots, the Highland Fire Crew from Idaho, and a squad of Kalskag firefighters are in place to protect the village and additional structures across the river.

The Hidden Creek Fire (#464) started by lightning on July 9 and is 20 miles northwest of Nikolai in the area of the Nixon Fork Gold Mine. The 481-acre fire is burning in mixed spruce and hardwoods. 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. Infrastructure at the mine includes an 85-person housing facility, a power plant, mining camp and maintenance buildings.

Unstaffed Fires (Selected List – Fires Are Being Monitored by Air)

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 Boulder Creek Fire (#551) started by lightning on July 13, less than a mile northeast of Flat. Six helitak firefighters completed structure protection, aided by a retardant-dropping air tanker, and the 7-acre fire has been controlled.

The Iditarod River Fire (#553) started by lightning on July 14, 12 miles southwest of Flat. It is burning 604 acres and burning in black spruce, with no known values at risk.

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.

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 which is 970 acres in size.

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.

The Buckstock River Fire (#543) started by lightning on July 13, 15 miles southeast of Aniak. The unstaffed fire has burned 25 acres in tundra. No known values are at risk.

The Middle Hoholitna Fire (#532) started by lightning on July 12, 45 miles southwest of Lime Village. The fire is 10 acres in size and burning in black spruce. No known values are at risk.

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

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 221 acres in size.

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 219 acres in size. No known values are at risk.

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.

The Tishimna Lake Fire (#521) started by lightning on July 12, 25 miles northwest of Lime Village. The 29-acre fire is burning in black spruce and tundra.

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 7,500 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.

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 Ethel Creek Fire (#516) started by lightning on July 11, 60 miles northwest of Nondalton. The fire is burning 220 acres in tundra, with Native Alaskan allotments four miles to the east.

The Discovery Creek Fire (#509) started by lightning on July 11, 25 miles south of Aniak. The 23-acre fire is burning in black spruce, and the Faulkner Homestead is the closest value at risk.

The Beaver House Hill Fire (#501) started by lightning on July 11, 18 miles southeast of Red Devil. The unstaffed fire is burning 233 acres in black spruce and threatening a Native Alaskan allotment.

The Horn Foothills Fire (#506) started by lightning on July 11. 20 miles southwest of Crooked Creek. The fire is burning 2,419 acres and burning in black spruce and tundra, with no known values at risk.

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 Door Mountains Fire (#517) started by lightning on July 11, and is burning 30 miles southwest of Lime Village. The 4,034-acre fire is burning in black spruce with no known values at risk.

The Taylor Mountain Fire (#515) started by lightning on July 11, 60 miles south of Red Devil. The fire is burning in 464 acres of black spruce, five miles south of the Taylor Mountains Mining Camp.

The Door Creek Fire (#475) was caused by lightning on July 10. The unstaffed fire is 15 miles southwest of Lime Village, burning in black spruce and tundra, 792 acres in size with no known values are at risk.

The Stony River Flats Fire (#477) was caused by lightning on July 10. The unstaffed fire is 12 miles northwest of Lime Village, burning in black spruce and tundra, 314 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 unstaffed fire is 12 miles north of the Togiak Wildlife Refuge, burning in tundra and brush, 400 acres in size. 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 unstaffed 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.

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 5-acre 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 300-acre fire is one of three fires near Red Devil.

The Jump Peak Fire (#488) was caused by lightning on July 10. The 600-acre fire is smoldering in black spruce, less than an acre in size, approximately 7 miles northwest of Red Devil.

The Fuller Creek Fire (#489) was caused by lightning on July 10. The fire is burning in black spruce and tundra, 9,000 acres in size, located approximately 10 miles west of Red Devil.

The Pete Andrews Creek Fire (#457) was reported July 8, 10 miles west of Illiamna. Air tankers dropped retardant on the 4,100-acre fire to slow its progress.

The Page Mountain Fire (#351) was started by lightning on June 22, 30 miles north of McGrath. The 33,786-acre unstaffed 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 Kitchen in McGrath.”

The sweet smell of butterscotch cookies fills the air as Melody Magnuson-Strick sits down to make her weekly fresh food and supply order. Her staff of six cooks are cleaning up after serving about 70 breakfasts before beginning to preparing lunch.

At the height of fire activity, more than 100 firefighters and support staff were treated to some of the best food in Southwest Alaska. “This is an amazing place. Nobody works harder and is so friendly at the same time,” says Seth Ross, Assistant Fire Management Officer for the MatSu-Southwest Area. “Even when it’s slow, it’s busy in the kitchen.”

Magnuson-Strick smiles widely and nods at hearing Ross’ praise before returning to her computer screen to finish her supply order, totaling 4,000 pounds of food to arrive next week.

“It makes me happy and I feel humbled when I hear how much people love our food,” she said. “Teamwork is what makes it possible. Dispatch tells us how many people we will be feeding, the ramp brings us the groceries when the cargo planes land, maintenance keeps things working, and the warehouse staff in Palmer and here make sure our deliveries are done right.”

Logistics can be challenging for a kitchen operating so far from a road system. At the beginning of fire season in April, and in times of slow fire activity, Magnuson-Strick needs to be resourceful to keep the crews fed, making arrangements with grocery stores in Anchorage and working with the Division of Forestry to keep the food fresh and flown-in on time.

A 30-year old refrigerator in the kitchen recently quit working, and is now being used for storage until another one arrives. “It sure was good to us,” she said.

Magnuson-Strick creates menus appealing to all types of eaters. The salad bar is filled with vegetables, fruit and low-carbohydrate foods, so vegetarians have many choices. Main entrees include fresh salmon, ribs and chicken smothered with grilled onions. London Broil, cheesy potato skins, collard greens with bacon bits, and carrot cake are also some of the favorite fare.

“Everyone here loves to cook,” she said. “They are all awesome, dependable and get the food out on time, and they like working because it’s always busy.” Magnuson-Strick and Loretta Maillelle are permanent seasonal kitchen employees, joined by emergency firefighter (EFF) cooks Alexandra Lyman, Jeri Andrews, Cherish Andrews, Caleb Cox and Tyler Goods.

“Loretta makes great honey wheat rolls,” Magnuson-Strick said, before describing one of her favorite deserts. She calls it s’more cheesecake, made with chocolate cream cheese, a graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream, marshmallows and bits of chocolate. Her eyes light up as she lists the ingredients, before asking me if I’ve tried the rice crispy rolls.

McGrath Kitchen Cook Loretta Maillelle Prepares Lunch, July 17. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Firefighters in the Lunch Line, July 17, McGrath Field Office. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
McGrath Kitchen Cook Alexandra Lyman Places Deserts for Firefighters, July 17.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
McGrath Cooks Jeri Andrews (l) and Alexandra Lyman Serving Lunch on July 17.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR

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