Southwest Area Gets Two New Fires, Seven Staffed

The Alaska Division of Forestry mobilized helitak crews to two new fires Wednesday, for a total of seven staffed fires and 67 active fires in the Southwest Area. Daily aerial detection flights are being flown to find new fires and re-map existing fires to update their status and size. One heavy air tanker, three fixed-wing logistical airplanes and three helicopters are based in McGrath, with an additional helicopter staffing fires near Aniak.

Firefighters are defending two gold mines, the village of Red Devil, a homestead and cabins along the Kuskokwim River, and cabins north of Nikolai and east of McGrath. Fire managers are prioritizing firefighting resources to protect life, property, commercial and historical values.

A crew of Southwest Area firefighters from the villages of Hooper Bay, Nikolai, Shagaluk, and Nondalton were flown from McGrath by helicopter on Wednesday to area fires.

Isolated showers and cooler temperatures will persist through the weekend. Light precipitation does not reach deeper, drier layers of vegetation, and many fires have received little to no rain. There were 600 lighting strikes recorded across the Southwest Area on Wednesday.

Staffed Fires

The Blackwater Creek Fire (#612) started by lightning on July 17, 12 miles southeast of McGrath, threatening area cabins. The fire is less than an acre in size, burning in black spruce and tundra. Five initial attack helitak firefighters from McGrath have completed chainsaw work around the fire and are mopping-up.

The Noir Hill Fire (#609) started by lightning on July 17, 12 miles east of McGrath. The 1.3-acre fire is burning in black spruce and tundra. Five initial attack helitak firefighters from McGrath have completed chainsaw work around the fire and are mopping-up.

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 Hills 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 Peary Creek Fire (#536) and the Timber Creek Fire (#537) to the north. The fire is 4,700-acres 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. A firing operation is being conducted to defend the mining operation, and 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 Gemuna Creek Fire (#540) started by lightning on July 13, 6 miles northwest of Crooked Creek. The unstaffed fire is 32 acres in size, burning in black spruce and tundra.

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 and 100% active in black spruce and tundra. No known values are at risk.

The Diamond Peak Fire (#527) started by lightning on July 12, 15 miles west of Lime Village. The fire is two acres in size, burning 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 unstaffed 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 Spike Mountain Fire (#514) started by lightning on July 11, 25 miles south of Red Devil. The fire is burning 156 acres of black spruce. No known values are at risk.

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 West Devils Elbow Fire (#504) started by lightning on July 11, 20 miles northeast of Red Devil. The fire is 45 acres in size with no known values at risk.

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 Molybdenum Mountains Fire (#507) started by lightning on July 11, 15 miles northeast of Aniak. The fire is 638 acres in size and 90% active in black spruce and tundra. No known values are at risk.

The Taylor Mountain Fire (#515) started by lightning on July 11, 60 miles south of Red Devil. The fire is 100% active in 464 acres of black spruce, five miles south of the Taylor Mountains Mining Camp.

The Pit Peak Fire (#481) is burning in black spruce, 35 miles south of Aniak, and 400 acres in size. No known values are at risk.

The Swift Creek Fire (#480) is burning in black spruce, 35 miles south of Aniak, and 150 acres in size. No known values are at risk.

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 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 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 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 Planning Section in the DNR McGrath Field Office, Alaska.”

Fighting fires in Alaska presents challenges for fire managers keeping track of new and existing fires across vast, roadless areas. In the lower 48 states, mapping and re-mapping fires is done by aerial observers in helicopters or firefighters and field observers on the ground using a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS). The data entered from these GPS units is then shared in map products for operations, planning and information sections, and situation unit.

Alaska’s Division of Forestry MatSu-Southwest Area spans 88 million acres, or 137,500 square miles, an area just larger than New Mexico. Currently there are 67 active fires in Alaska’s Southwest Area, seven of which are staffed with firefighters.

Launching from the airport at the McGrath Field Office, an aerial observer and a pilot make one or two flights daily in fixed-wing planes, flying over selected fires. Sitting in the right seat, the observers use computer tablets to take several photographs of each fire — while also looking for new fire starts along the way — serving a dual role as a detection team.

Back at base, the photographs are studied closely, and geospatial information specialists (GIS) input the updated fire perimeters as new layers on Google Earth maps. This process is called “manually georeferencing.” They digitally draw lines on these maps, saving them as new layers.

Another tool has emerged to help the GIS plot accurate perimeters. The European Space Agency (ESA) produces satellite-generated high resolution images — not simply geographic representations — of specific areas chosen by the user. Sentinel-Hub is the name of the EAS web-based application, available to the public. Sentinel-Hub satellites produce images in vertical strips across the landscape, showing smoke, flames, and terrain features. The benefits of these images are invaluable, if the sky is mostly clear. Smoke and cloud cover can block clear views of the landscape directly below, but terrain features do not.

Once perimeter maps of the fires are updated and completed, fire managers, planning section and situation unit specialists prioritize how best to use a limited number of firefighting resources. Staffed fires and new fires take priority wherever life and property is threatened.

Maps are also delivered to firefighters in the field. These can be hard copies, but in areas of data connectivity (wifi), firefighters can download maps into a GPS-based program called Avenza, also available to the public. This unique application shows a fire’s perimeter, values at risk, water sources, and infrastructure in the surrounding area.

Avenza does not require wifi once a map is downloaded into a smart phone. The location of the user is represented by a big blue dot, progressing with the user and displaying their location in real time. This information can be of critical importance to firefighters in the field, along with their own visual observations of landmarks and terrain features around them.

“This work could not be done by one person,” says Lann Moore, the McGrath Area Fires Planning Section Chief, mobilized from central New Mexico. “I’m amazed at what the McGrath Field Office Staff accomplishes. In the lower 48 states, this operation would require a considerably larger incident management team structure.”

Pilot Will Valendak and Aerial Observer Bill Zootsma Survey Area Fires.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
An unstaffed fire burns near the Kuskokwim River. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
The Southwest Area Fire Planning Section at the McGrath Field Office.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
An image of the 281,774-acre Old Grouchtop Fire, from the EAS Sentinel-Hub Satellite, and modified in Photoshop (McMillan) to emphasize land features and fire behavior.

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