Southwest Alaska Area Fire Information Update – July 24

Thunderstorms unleashed 10,000 lightning strikes on Alaska’s interior Tuesday, starting six new fires in the Southwest Area. Wetting rains slowed fire activity on several incidents, while other fires received little to no rain. Cool wet weather is forecast to persist through Thursday, with a slight warming trend and southwest winds predicted for the weekend. Smoke and ash fall is being reported in the vicinity of larger fires, especially in the village of Crooked Creek.

Sixty-seven fires are active in the Southwest Alaska Area. Priorities for fire managers remain initial attack on new fires to defend life, property and commercial infrastructure. Aerial detection flights are being flown to record new starts and update the status of existing fires. Five fires are currently being staffed with crews protecting the village of Nikolai, Donlin Mine, the Nixon Mine, Red Devil, and cabins along the Kuskokwim River.

Four fixed-wing logistical airplanes and three helicopters are based at the DNR McGrath Fire Base, with one helicopter staffing fires near Aniak. Eighteen helitak firefighters stationed at the DNR McGrath Fire Base mobilized to new fires on Tuesday. 410,433 acres have burned in Southwest Alaska this year, and two million total acres have burned across the state this year.

Staffed Fires

The Lost Jack Lake Fire (#662), initially named the Salmonberry Fire, started by lightning on July 23, three miles north of Nikolai. Eighteen smokejumpers and six helitak firefighters are in place, making good progress as they work to contain the fire, which received scant rain. Two Fire Boss water-scooping airplanes were ordered for the fire, estimated at 100-acres in size, burning in black spruce and tundra.

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 combined fires total 53,108 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. Managers of the mine have suspended operations and removed remaining personnel due to impacts of smoke and the growth of the fire.

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 3,098-acres, burning in mixed spruce. The Pioneer Peak Hotshots and a squad of five firefighters from Kalskag 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 are demobing from the fire on Wednesday, and the Bear Divide Hotshots will demobilize on Thursday. The incident commander and the Southwest Area #1 Crew remain in place, comprised of firefighters from the villages of Hooper Bay, Shageluk, Nikolai, and Nondalton. They are working to clear vegetation around structures, setting up pumps, hoselays and sprinkler systems to prepare for firing operations if they be necessary. The fire received heavy rain on Wednesday.

The Kolmakof Hills Fire (#490) was started by lightning on July 10, 20 miles east of Aniak. The fire was re-mapped at 9,572 acres and is being managed with the Aghuluk Fire (#544), mapped at 1,531 acres in size. Both fires are burning in mixed spruce and threatening cabins along the Kuskokwim River. One smokejumper, four helitak firefighters from the DNR McGrath Fire Base and the Inyo Hotshots are in place, clearing vegetation around area cabins, setting up sprinklers and planning for firing operations should they become necessary.

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

The Medicine Creek Fire (#673) started by lightning on July 23, 12 miles northwest of Nikolai. The fire is smoldering in grass and is eight acres in size

The Sheace Swamp Fire (#666) was started by lightning on July 23, five miles southeast of Mcgrath. The fire is less than an acre in size and there are Native Alaskan allotments in the area.

The Takotna Fire (#665) started by lightning on July 23, one mile east of Takotna. The fire is burning in black spruce and is about an acre in size. No known values are at risk.

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 assessed an allotment for protection in the vicinity of the fire but took no further action.

The Boss Creek Fire (#667) was started by lightning on July 23, 45 miles southwest of Crooked Creek. The fire is estimated at 43-acres and no known values are at risk.

The Tonklonukna Creek Fire (#655) started by lightning last week and went undetected until it became active on July 22. It is burning in black spruce and tundra and is seven acres in size. A Native Alaskan allotment is located three miles to the southwest of the fire.

The Holokuk Ridge Fire (#630) was started by lightning and reported by aerial observers on a detection flight on July 19. The 572-acre fire is smoldering in black spruce, 50 miles southeast of Aniak, and there are no known values at risk.

The Old Grouch Top Fire (#174) started by lightning on June 5, about 35 miles northwest of McGrath. The fire has burned 307,969 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 303 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 1,531 acres in size and being managed with the Kolmakof Hills Fire (#490). McGrath Helitak Crewmembers 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 970 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 445 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 6,499 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 396 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 353 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 8,115 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 220 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 28 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 2,433 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 149 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 528 acres, with no 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 796 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 371 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 297 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 7,949 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 3,931 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 46,896-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 Maintenance of the DNR McGrath Fire Base.”

In 1957, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) built a permanent base for wildland firefighting operations in McGrath, Alaska. The State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) assumed ownership of the base in 1985 and built a dispatch center, supply warehouse, and began improving the infrastructure.

The DNR staff replaced the canvas-covered wall tents that housed the crews with wood cabins with metal roofs. Today the DNR McGrath Fire Base is a sprawling complex of rustic buildings and maintenance sheds connected by wooden boardwalks and narrow pathways defining a landscape of cut green grass, aspen trees, spruce trees, fireweed, wild roses and several kinds of berries.

At the height of fire season in July, hundreds of firefighters, fire managers and support staff live and work at the DNR McGrath Fire Base, walking or riding bicycles between their offices and the dining hall, aircraft ramp, helibase, barracks and cabins.

TR Baumgartner became the supervisor of maintenance at the base in 2013, joined by Tyler Samuelson in 2014. Their first job in the spring is to get things running after a long winter with temperatures sometimes dropping to 40 degrees below zero. Baumgartner and Samuelson had little prior experience with building maintenance when they arrived, but that changed quickly. “There was a lot of trial and error to begin with,” says Samuelson. After years of solving problems large and small, they tackle every maintenance challenge that comes their way.

In periods of heavy fire activity, emergency firefighters (EFF) Daryl McKindy and Robert Miller are hired on to help in any way they’re needed, including replacing planks on the well-traveled boardwalk, or helping repair one of the many well-used machines everyone depends upon.

The Dining Hall is a prime example — with a propane-fed stove that’s served the staff well for close to 40 years, except for springs on its door that need replacement more than once each year. “The worst job is cleaning the stove’s grease trap,” says Baumgartner. There’s no shortage of grease from a kitchen that feeds a hundred hungry firefighters a day during the peak of fire season. If they don’t take on this task in time, the odor has been known to drift into town and the surrounding woods, inviting unwelcome bears to dinner.

Daryl McKindy and Robert Miller Work Together to Assemble a New Desk In The DNR McGrath Fire Base Administration Office. Photo: Mike McMillan — DNR
Housing Unit at the DNR McGrath Fire Base. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR


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