Southwest Alaska Area Fire Update – July 23

Southwest Alaska Area firefighters are taking action to protect several Native Alaskan Allotments threatened by area fires. Allotments are parcels of land up to 160 acres in size, designated for fire protection. Sixty-one fires are active across the area, and recent warmer weather has increased fire activity on several incidents. Smoke and limited visibility is slowing air travel into several Southwest Alaskan villages and remote airstrips.

One new fire was reported in limited protection area Monday, 20 miles northeast of Nikolai. Referred to as a “hold-over”, the Tonklonukna Creek Fire (#655) started by lightning last week and went undetected until it became active on Monday.

Five fires are staffed with crews protecting the Donlin Mine, the Nixon Mine, Red Devil, cabins along the Kuskokwim River, and an allotment near Red Devil. Eight smokejumpers were en route to the Salmonberry Fire (#662) reported outside of Nikolai on Tuesday evening.

No lightning was reported on Monday. Deeper layers of vegetation in the tundra remain dry and receptive to new fire starts. No lightning is predicted for the area in the coming days. A cooler, wetter weather system is approaching Alaska from the east and will likely move to the south.

Two fixed-wing logistical airplanes and three helicopters are based at the DNR McGrath Fire Base, with one helicopter staffing fires near Aniak. Four initial attack helicopter modules with 18 initial attack firefighters are based in McGrath. 459,461 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.

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. A helitak module from Utah — based at the DNR McGrath Helibase — is protecting an area allotment.

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.
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 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 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.

“How Do They Do It? A Closer Look at Helicopter Mechanics at the McGrath Helibase.”

Helicopter mechanic James Frunk insists people call him by his last name only. After serving eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a door gunner and Weapons Tactics Crew Chief and Instructor, people do what Frunk says. He has a ready sense of humor and an easy laugh, but Frunk is all business when it comes to taking care of his pilot and crew, starting with daily maintenance and inspections. “All inspections are written in blood or failure,” he said.

Frunk works for Precision Helicopters LLC of McMinnville, Oregon. The 205++ helicopter he maintains is dedicated to wildland firefighting on a 120-day contract, while many other contracted helicopters are flown year-round for construction projects and other commercial uses.


The 205++ has a single turbine engine, and the rest of its components — except the airframe itself — are the same as those of a 212 Helicopter. These aircraft are nicknamed “Hueys” because they used to be identified with an HU rather than UH. “Just like the word Jeep. It was originally named ‘GP’ for ‘general purpose’ vehicle,” he explained.

After fire season, Frunk begins the overhaul process on the aircraft, adhering to strict schedules listed for each part of the ship. The ship and crew logged 530 flight hours last season. Every 1,000 hours of flight requires that the rotor blades and connecting hub be removed and “Eddy Inspected”. Eddy-current testing is one form of nondestructive testing (NDT) that uses electromagnetic energy to search for and detect flaws on the surface and beneath the surface in conductive materials including metal.

The 6,000-pound helicopter is made mostly of light and flexible sheet aluminum wrapped around aluminum supporting ribs for rigidity. Stainless steel is used for the engine deck because of its higher heat tolerance. The ship’s gear boxes are made of magnesium, which has extremely high heat tolerance. Frunk said that if those magnesium parts catch fire, there’s no stopping them from burning. “Fire extinguishers on board are there to help get people out, not put out flames if the gear boxes catch fire,” he said.

Daily inspections on the ship include checking levels of hydraulic fluids and mobile jet engine oil, which has low viscosity and high heat tolerance. Pumps inside the gear boxes and engine compartment spray thin coats of oil on the bearings and moving parts to keep them lubricated. When the fuel tender pulls up, Frunk tests the Jet-A for the presence of water or contaminants before it goes into the ship’s tank. Precision Helicopter’s spare parts service trailer is parked in Anchorage, so it takes a lot less time to send needed parts when they need replacement.

Frunk’s philosophy as a mechanic is to be proactive, not reactive. “I fix it before it breaks, because I look at my pilot and crew as my family,” he explained. “But it takes time to build trust. Whenever someone has a question, I do a lot of teaching to build that trust.” Frunk keeps Pilot Tyler Sturdevant informed about every discrepancy he finds, even if it is only cosmetic. “Trust is earned not given,” he said. We talk about what we have to fix or now, and what we can fix later.

“I do what the pilot wants and the aircraft needs. Happy pilot, happy mechanic,” said Frunk.

Helicopter Mechanic James Frunk Inspects Ship at the McGrath Helibase.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Helicopter Mechanic James Frunk Communicates with Pilot Tyler Sturdevant.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR

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