McGrath Helitack Stops Two Southwest Area Fires

McGrath Helitak Crewmembers Load Initial Attack Helicopter At Helibase.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR

Helitak firefighters from the McGrath Field Office have declared the Blackwater Creek Fire (#612) and the Noir Hills Fire (#602) out. Both fires started by lightning in black spruce and tundra, growing to an acre in size before being initial attacked by helitak squads on Wednesday.

Five fires remain staffed in Southwest Alaska, with a total of 65 active fires. Cooler temperatures and fewer thunderstorms will persist through the weekend. No lightning was detected yesterday and there were no new fire starts reported.

Detection flights are being flown to 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. Two initial attack helicopter modules and eight smokejumpers are also based at the McGrath Field Office.

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. Modified suppression areas were downgraded to limited suppression areas on Friday. Fire managers are prioritizing firefighting resources to protect life, property, commercial and historical values.

Staffed Fires

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 was re-mapped at 12,700-acres in black spruce, and is 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 completed to defend the mining operation, and non-essential mine personnel have been relocated.

Successful Burning Operations Progress Around Donlin Mine. Photo: Adam Cook – DNR

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 2,640-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
completing preparation of area structures, setting up pumps, hoselays and sprinkler systems. Infrastructure at the mine includes an 85-person housing facility, a power plant, mining camp and maintenance buildings.

The Kolmakof Hills Fire (#490) started by lightning on July 10, 20 miles east of Aniak. The fire was remapped at 8,267, 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 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.

Unstaffed Fires (Selected – Fires 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 not currently threatening cabins that have been “plumbed” with sprinkler systems, in the event the fire becomes active in these areas.

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 Peary Creek Fire (#536) was caused by lightning on July 12, 15 miles north of Crooked Creek. The fire has burned 5,000 acres of black spruce.

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 Devil’s 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 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 Administration and Finance At The McGrath Field Office.”

Tina Clifford is usually the first person incoming firefighters meet at the McGrath Field Office, and the last one they see when they finish their assignments and head home. In times of normal fire activity, Clifford juggles many administrative responsibilities at once, including check-in and demobilization of crews, time sheet processing, and transportation of firefighters to the local air service or medical clinic. She also creates hiring packets when she begins work in April and serves as a receptionist when the public and firefighters have questions.

Clifford is good at solving problems large and small, working closely with MatSu-Southwest Area Assistant Fire Management Officer Seth Ross. “I love my job,” says Clifford. “No two days are ever the same.” She helped organize the Basic Fire Academy held in McGrath last spring, in which twenty-five firefighters and five crew bosses from area villages completed their week-long training. “Their graduation ceremony was awesome,” said Clifford with a big smile.

With the heavy fire activity across the Southwest Alaska this July, Clifford has welcomed three finance unit specialists to help accomplish critically important functions — making sure firefighters and support staff get paid, tracking costs of each fire, and making sure the charge codes are right. “They’re taking a lot of heat off me,” Clifford said.

“That’s why we’re here, to take pressure off the local unit,” said Cost Unit Leader Annette Pintado from Colorado. Time Unit Leader Susan Vonner from Washington said there is usually a shortage of finance unit specialists during fire season. “The Alaska Incident Management Teams are committed to assignments, and many agency employees aren’t able to leave their regular duties,” she explained.

Pintado, Vonner, and Personnel Time Recorder Rachel Brubaker from Idaho are contracted staff, known as Administratively Determined (AD) or “casual hire” employees. AD firefighters and support staff fulfill important roles in times of heightened fire activity and other emergency incidents. Pintado served as Compensation and Claims Unit Leader on a fire in Florida last year. When a firefighter far from home broke his leg, Pintado went to the hospital twice a day to check on him and make sure he was getting the care he needed,

“I’m learning a lot from these ladies, and Tina,” said Brubaker, turning away from her computer screen a moment. “There’s so much going on that we have to keep track of.” The finance unit enters data from crew time reports (CTRs) and supply orders from the field into “EI Suite”, an application that tracks individual’s shift time reports and charge codes for the incident.

Hundreds of firefighters have shuffled through the McGrath Field Office this fire season. As Gregory Rivers from Hooper Bay was demobilizing from the incident, the finance section was one of his last stops. Keeping work hours and rest ratios straight can be a daunting task for new firefighters. Rivers is an emergency firefighter (EFF), paid by the State of Alaska. The finance unit answered his questions, helped him complete his paperwork. “See, we’re not that scary, are we? asked Pintado, as Rivers smiled and quietly waved goodbye.

Finance Section At The McGrath Field Office Assists Firefighters, July 19.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
From Right, Susan Vonner, Rachel Brubaker, and Tina Clifford Help Gregory Rivers Complete His Paperwork. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR

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