Southwest Alaska Area Firefighters Gaining Ground

Four fires are being staffed in the Southwest Alaska Area, with one fire being demoted today. Cooler temperatures are persisting over the area. No lightning was detected and there were no new fire starts on Friday. About 490,000 acres have burned across Southwest Alaska in 2019.

Detection flights and aerial observers are re-mapping fires to update their status and size. Two fixed-wing logistical airplanes and three helicopters are based at the DNR McGrath Fire Base, with an additional helicopter staffing fires near Aniak. Two initial attack helicopter modules with 11 initial attack firefighters and eight smokejumpers are based in McGrath.

Firefighters are defending two gold mines, the community of Red Devil, and a homestead and cabins along the Kuskokwim River. 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), was started by lightning on July 12, one mile west of the Donlin Mine. The fire has burned into the Peary Creek Fire (#536) and the Timber Creek Fire (#537) to the north. The fire was re-mapped at 12,700-acres, burning in black spruce and threatening structures at the Donlin Mine. One smokejumper and the Dalton Hotshots are in place. Firefighters have utilized heavy equipment on site, creating control lines and conducting firing operations to defend 80 structures. All but nine mining personnel have been relocated.

The McCally Creek Fire (#487) was started by lightning on July 10 near the community of Red Devil. The fire has merged with the Barometer Mountain Fire (#491) and the Barometer Foothills Fire (#499), totaling 3,079-acres, burning in mixed spruce. The Pioneer Peak Hotshots, the Idaho State #2 Crew, and a squad of Kalskag firefighters are in place to protect the community and additional structures across the river.

The Hidden Creek Fire (#464) was started by lightning on July 9, 20 miles northwest of Nikolai in the area of the Nixon Fork Gold Mine. The 543-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 at the mine. Firefighters are completing preparation of area structures, clearing vegetation, 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. Sixty-two firefighters in place are prepared to conduct firing operations as needed.

The Kolmakof Hills Fire (#490) was started by lightning on July 10, 20 miles east of Aniak. The fire was re-mapped at 8,267 acres and is being managed with the Aghuluk Fire (#544). The fires are burning in mixed spruce and threatening cabins along the Kuskokwim River. Three helitak firefighters from the McGrath Fire Base and the Inyo Hotshots are in place, clearing vegetation around area cabins, setting up sprinklers and planning structure protection/firing 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. Five helitak firefighters from Utah and and a 17-person Southwest Area Crew from the villages of Hooper Bay, Nondalton, Nikolai and Shagaluk have extinguished the fire and are demobilizing today.

Unstaffed Fires (Fires Being Monitored By Aircraft)

Helitak firefighters from McGrath 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 about an acre in size before being initial attacked and extinguished by helitak last Thursday.

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 were “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. The 7-acre fire was declared controlled, and minimal fire activity was reported.

The Iditarod River Fire (#553) started by lightning on July 14, 12 miles southwest of Flat. It was re-mapped at 301 acres and is smoldering 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 being managed with the Kolmakof Hills Fire (#490). McGrath Helitak Crewmembers have provided structure protection by clearing vegetation around a nearby cabin and outbuildings in the areas of both fires.

The Tundra Lake Fire (#474) started by lightning on July 10 and is 50 miles northwest of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, 10 miles south of Lime Village. Eight smokejumpers defended a cabin and a Native Alaskan allotment near the fire, which is 922 acres in size.

The Gemuna Creek Fire (#540) was started by lightning on July 13, six miles northwest of Crooked Creek. The fire is 32 acres in size and smoldering in black spruce and tundra.
No known values are at risk.

The Buckstock River Fire (#543) started by lightning on July 13, 15 miles southeast of Aniak. The fire was re-mapped at 207 acres and is smoldering 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, and is burning in black spruce. The fire has merged with the Smith Creek Fire (#534) and the Timber Creek Fire (#537), totaling 5,000 acres. 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 smoldering 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 was re-mapped at 394 acres and is smoldering 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 smoldering in black spruce, hardwoods and tundra, and is 220 acres in size with no known values at risk.

The Snipes Creek Fire (#467) started by lightning on July 9. The fire is smoldering in tundra in the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and was re-mapped at 148 acres in size. No known values are at risk.

The Chilchitna Headwaters Fire (#476) is smoldering in black spruce,12 miles northwest of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and is 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 28-acre fire is smoldering in black spruce and tundra with no know values at risk.

The Devils Elbow Fire (#496) started by lightning on July 11, 60 miles south of McGrath. The fire is burning in black spruce and hardwoods and was re-mapped at 7,964 acres. Cabins, Native Alaskan allotments and a sawmill operation were initially threatened, Two helitak firefighters from the McGrath Fire Base 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 was re-mapped at 209 acres in size and is smoldering 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 was re-mapped at three acres and is smoldering in 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 was re-mapped at 91 acres and is smoldering 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 smoldering in black spruce. 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 fire was re-mapped at 1,100 acres and is smoldering in black spruce. No known values are at risk.

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 and smoldering in black spruce, 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 2,419 acres in size and smoldering in black spruce and tundra. No known values are at risk.

The Little Titnuk Fire (#513) started by lightning on July 11, 18 miles southeast of Red Devil. The fire was re-mapped at 2,678 acres and is smoldering in black spruce, with no known values at risk.

The Door Mountains Fire (#517) started by lightning on July 11, 30 miles southwest of Lime Village. The 4,034-acre fire is smoldering 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 smoldering 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 smoldering in 1,121 acres of black spruce, five miles south of the Taylor Mountains Mining Camp.

The Pit Peak Fire (#481) was started by lightning on July 10, and is smoldering in black spruce, 35 miles south of Aniak. The fire was re-mapped at 148 acres and no known values are at risk.

The Swift Creek Fire (#480) was started by lightning on July 10 and is smoldering in black spruce, 35 miles south of Aniak. The fire was re-mapped at 520 acres, with no known values at risk.

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

The Stony River Flats Fire (#477) was caused by lightning on July 10. The fire is 12 miles northwest of Lime Village, smoldering in black spruce and tundra, and is 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.

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, and was re-mapped at 296 acres.
No known values are at risk.

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, and 5 acres in size. 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 community. The fire merged with the McCally Creek Fire (#487) and the Barometer Foothills Fire (#499) totaling 3,079 acres.

The Barometer Foothills Fire (#499) was started by lightning on July 11, just southwest of Red Devil. The fire has merged with the McCally Creek Fire (#487) and the Barometer Mountain Fire (#491) for a total of 3,079 acres.

The Jump Peak Fire (#488) was caused by lightning on July 10. The 600-acre fire is smoldering in black spruce and is 307 acres in size, about 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, and was re-mapped at 7,903 acres, about 10 miles west of Red Devil.

The Pete Andrews Creek Fire (#457) was reported on July 8, 10 miles west of Iliamna. It is smoldering in black spruce and tundra, and is 2,485 acres in size. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

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. Firefighters have installed sprinklers on six area cabins and also created defensible space around the structures by removing vegetation.

“How Do They Do It? A Closer Look At the DNR McGrath Air Tanker Base.”

Four propellers on the hulking DC-6 fuel tanker wind to a stop as a stepladder springs down, nearly touching the tarmac. The Everts Air Cargo crew of three — one woman and two men — spring into motion. The pilot briskly approaches McGrath Air Tanker Base Manager TR Baumgartner. Tanker Base Crewman Tyler Samuelson joins them, and small-talk between the three is all but non-existent.

The Everts Crew opens a cargo hatch, pulling a long, four-inch diameter hose from the belly of the plane. One fueler connects the hose to the plane’s fuel tank, the rest of the crew on scene wrestles the hose toward a portable pump in front of the tanker base 20,000 gallons fuel tank.

Baumgartner retrieves a small sample of Jet-A from a valve near the pump, filling a fuel-testing cylinder with the clear liquid. He looks closely at the indicator before giving the fueling crew the go-ahead. Samuelson opens another valve, releasing 4,600 gallons into the tanker base fuel tank. The DC-6 rises up noticeably as it unloads its cargo, weighing more than 31,000 lbs.

Ten minutes pass before the two-stroke pump starts to cavitate. Both the fueling crew and the tanker base crew work together, raising the fueling hose over their heads and walking forward slowly, draining it of its contents. Once the hose is unhooked from both ends, Baumgartner helps the fueler push the trailing end of the heavy hose back into the cargo hold.

“OK thanks!” yells the pilot as his crew makes their way back up the stairs of the aircraft. A minute later, each of the jet-turbine engines rumbles and growls to a start, spitting puffs of grey smoke into the wind created by the props. Samuelson gives the all-clear sign and the tanker taxis down the ramp. Five minutes later it was wheel’s up and off to Anchorage.

Baumgartner has worked for the McGrath Tanker Base for seven years, Samuelson has served the DNR for six years. Both are permanent seasonal employees who also perform maintenance at the McGrath Fire Base. Duane Norback is an emergency firefighter (EFF) who works at the tanker base during periods of heavier fire activity. Duties of tanker base crewmembers include tanker parking tender, retardant mix master and ramp manager.

McGrath is off the road system, so retardant concentrate must be flown in — a barge carrying a load of concentrate once took two years to arrive after the river became shallow. The concentrate will remain at the McGrath Tanker Base until it is used — unlike tanker bases in the lower 48 states where excess concentrate is usually trucked off-site.

Forty below zero temperatures transform Phoscheck concentrate into a gel that sits idle until spring. Air compressors and recirculation pumps will run for twenty hours before the retardant is ready to mix again at a ratio of 5.5 parts water to one part Phoscheck. A 35,000-gallon water tank at the base is filled by hoses leading from the Kuskokwim River — once the ice melts.

Baumgartner estimates the McGrath Tanker Base Crew has loaded twelve air tankers with 2,000 gallons of retardant this year, compared with 2015, when they filled close to sixty loads into tankers to support firefighters in the field. During that year, the Galena Air Tanker Base was not operable because of severe springtime flooding. Without the McGrath Tanker Base being fully staffed, Baumgartner believes Nulato, immediately threatened by one fire — might not be here today. “Load and return times were too long and too far to help the village.” he said.

DNR McGrath Air Tanker Base Manager TR Baumgartner Checks For Contaminants in a Sample of Jet-A Fuel. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Everts Fueling Crew at McGrath Tanker Base. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Wall art at the McGrath Tanker Base Office.
DC-7 Air Tanker Drops Retardant in Alaska. File Photo: Mike McMillan

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