Southwest Alaska Area Fire Information Update – July 22

Southwest Area Fire Managers are seeking opportunities to protect Native Alaskan allotments threatened by one or more of the 64 active fires in Southwest Alaska. There are currently 120 firefighters assigned to four fires. Crews and support staff finishing their 14 to 21 day assignments are being demobilized, including dispatchers, logistical support and overhead.

Crews remain in place to defend the Donlin Mine, the Nixon Mine, the community of Red Devil, and cabins along the Kuskokwim River. No new fires were reported Sunday, and no lightning was recorded. Warmer temperatures reaching into the lower 80’s are predicted for the coming days. Isolated thunderstorms may bring limited precipitation and lightning. Deeper layers of vegetation in the tundra remain dry and receptive to new fire starts.

Heavy smoke in some areas is slowing re-supply missions and challenging aerial observers re-mapping fires to update their status and size. Wind prevailing from the north is pushing smoke southward, and local residents may see smoke and visibility worsen as this pattern persists.

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 16 initial attack firefighters are based in McGrath. 445,474 acres have burned in Southwest Alaska this year, and two million total acres have burned across the state this year.

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 to create control lines and conduct successful 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 are in place to protect the community and additional structures across the Kuskokwim River. Several Native Allotments in the area have also been identified for protection.

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 1,100-acre fire is burning in mixed spruce and hardwoods. Eight smokejumpers, the Bear Divide Hotshots and the Southwest Area #1 Crew comprised of firefighters from the villages of Hooper Bay, Shageluk, Nikolai, and Nondalton are in place clearing vegetation around structures, setting up pumps, hoselays and sprinkler systems to prepare for firing operations should they be necessary.

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). Both 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 for structure protection and firing operations should they become necessary.

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

The Holokuk Ridge Fire (#630) was started by lightning and reported by aerial observers on a detection flight on July 19. The fire is smoldering in black spruce, 50 miles southeast of Aniak, and there are no known values at risk.

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 extinguished the fire and were demobilized on Saturday.

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.

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 265 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 304 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 7,962 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 Helicopter Pilots at the DNR McGrath Helibase.”

Three helicopters sit in the grassy meadow of the DNR McGrath Helibase, ready to spool up for their next assignment. Smoke settling in near Red Devil has delayed one ship from launching for its mission on Monday afternoon. When the smoke cleared, Utah’s Wasatch Helitak Crew loaded the royal blue 205 A-++ aircraft with six coolers carrying food and ice to be delivered to 22 firefighters staffing the Smith Creek Fire (#534) at the Donlin Mine. 

The ship’s pilot is Tyler Sturdevant from Portland, Oregon. Sturdevant grew up in an aviation family — following in his father’s footsteps — logging about 11,000 flight hours in his career starting in 2008. In the winter he pilots helicopters to support a globe-traveling scientific research vessel, when he’s not delivering heli-skiers to the top of glaciers. “He’s like family to us,” said Lead Wasatch Helitak Crewmember Kimberly Soule. “He’s a great pilot. He’s taken the time to understand wildfire verbiage, and he takes training and safety very seriously.”

Pilot Jerry Gray is from Wolf Creek, Alaska. He commands the dark blue 204 UH-IB restricted ship — it does not carry passengers or internal cargo — only external payloads of cargo, including sling nets of cargo or a 300-gallon water-dropping bucket. Gray has logged about 16,000 hours in his 35-year career. Most of the year, Gray supports construction projects, delivering seismic drills and communication towers, or 3,000 pounds of concrete poured from an aluminum bucket.

Gray appreciates feedback from firefighters in the field. On a fire near Flat this year, Gray worked with smokejumpers who helped him drop more effectively. They directed him to make “trail drops” when they wanted more area covered, and “hover drops” when they needed more water on one particular hot spot. Ground crews also lay out reflective panels near targets, or give pilots a mirror “flash” to identify their location for the pilot.

Pilot Abi Amboni is from Wasilla, Alaska, and began flying helicopters in 2008 and has logged about 3,000 flight hours. She’s the relief pilot on the canary yellow Eagle Single, which has a Bell 212 airframe, rotors, and transmission — nearly every part — except for a single (rather than double) turbine engine. Amboni said she knew she wanted to be a helicopter pilot when she was in kindergarten. She was inspired to learn about helicopters when a best friend was life-flighted in an emergency. Amboni enjoys shuttling passengers but especially likes working with external payloads including gear nets on long steel cables, or the ship’s 420-gallon water-dropping bucket.

Depending upon a helicopter’s mission, annual training and re-certification can include annual check rides sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and weeks of ground training covering everything from airspace awareness to survival skills.

How a 6,000-pound helicopter stays afloat is an easy question for pilots to answer, but not after a bit of background and frame of reference. Sturdevant quotes Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Then he referred to the Bernoulli Principle which states in summary: An air foil (fixed-wing or rotor blade) causes high pressure (from below the foil) to go up toward the area of low pressure (above the foil). “High pressure always wants to go to low pressure,” Sturdevant explained. He used the analogy of sticking your arm out of a window of a moving car. “Just as with a rotor-blade or a plane’s wing, your arm will be forced upwards and backwards,” he said.

Sturdevant described fighting fires in Alaska as unique. “The fire environment is diverse, full of trees but still not as hot.” Amboni said coming back to McGrath again this year has been great. “It feels like summer camp,” she said with a smile.

Morning Briefing at the DNR McGrath Helibase. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR


Helicopter Pilot Tyler Sturdevant Prepares for a Cargo Mission. Photo: Mike McMillan — DNR
Helicopters Work at the DNR McGrath Helibase. Photo: Mike McMillan — DNR

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