Southwest Alaska Area Fire Information Update – July 25

Thunderstorms are predicted across Southwest Alaska through Friday, bringing isolated showers with lightning, and the chance of new fire starts. Ground fuels remain critically dry in areas not receiving wetting rain, and fire managers are tracking the growth of several large incidents.

Five fires are currently being staffed with crews defending the villages of Nikolai and Red Devil, the Donlin Mine, the Nixon Mine, and cabins along the Kuskokwim River. One new fire was reported smoldering in a limited protection area on Wednesday, and 68 fires remain active in the Southwest Alaska Area.

Four fixed-wing logistical airplanes and three helicopters are based at the DNR McGrath Fire Base, with one helicopter staffing fires near Aniak. Ten helitak firefighters are staffing initial attack modules at the DNR McGrath Helibase. 411,280 acres have burned in Southwest Alaska this year, and 2.1 million acres 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 are in place, making good progress as they work to contain the 100-acre fire, burning in black spruce and tundra.
The fire has received little rain from area thunderstorms.

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. The Bear Divide Hotshots were demobilized from the fire today. The incident commander and the Southwest Area #1 Crew are in place, comprised of 16 firefighters from the villages of Hooper Bay, Shageluk, Nikolai, and Nondalton. Eight of these firefighters will be flown to the Medicine Creek Fire (#673) to defend a Native Alaskan allotment. The Hidden Creek 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 Helibase 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 Weasel Creek Fire (#679) was started by lightning on July 24, 30 miles southwest of Whitefish Lake. It is 200 acres in size and smoldering in black spruce and tundra. No known values are at risk.

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 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 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 West Devils Elbow Fire (#504) started by lightning on July 11, 20 miles northeast of Red Devil. It was smoldering in black spruce when a helitak module from McGrath protected a nearby allotment and called the fire controlled.

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 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 Fighting Wildfires in Alaska.”

Fighting wildfires is challenging. But fighting wildfires in Alaska can be downright strange at times. Experience, imagination, attitude and teamwork can mean the difference between suffering and thriving on a fire assignment in Alaska. For example, all of those readily available water sources near a fire are perfect for setting up pumps and hose lays — but not so perfect when they come between firefighters trying to access the firelines with heavy gear.

Lookouts may not be useful in flat areas with dense woods. Communications with dispatch are usually best done by satellite phones, or by using a “Dow” or “Larson” Antenna — a 25-foot flexible cord attached to the top of a tall but climbable tree, the other end connected to a hand-held radio.

The Alaskan sky stays bright until two a.m. on many summer nights— ideal for working late and gaining ground on a fire. But when firefighters have only a few hours to sleep, that same night sky can feel like daytime to tired crews, and much-needed sleep can be elusive.

Unlike the lower 48 states where most fires are human-caused, lightning is the way most wildfires start in Alaska. When a new fire is plotted in an area designated for fire protection, the first problem is getting firefighters and hundreds of pounds of gear to the fireline. These logistical problems are routinely solved with airplanes, helicopters, boats, and common sense.

Smokejumpers prefer using their parachutes, but sometimes their jumpship lands at airstrips, and they shuttle to firelines by helicopter or boat — whatever works best. Hotshot crews working in Alaska are accustomed to traveling to the fireline using the fastest, safest means possible, and ready to configure their gear accordingly. Helitak crews are heavily utilized for initial attack (IA) in areas near cities, towns and villages, but more remote fires can be out of reach to logistically support or suppress in time.

Air support can often make the difference between catching a small fire or not. Water-scooping Fire Bosses and CL-415s make quick load and returns when water sources are near. Air tankers have great success too — if their turnaround times are not too long from tanker base.

Fuel models in Alaska are especially unique. Hardwoods stands of Aspen and Birch Trees are commonly utilized as natural barriers to active fires, and also considered safer places than vast expanses of black spruce trees — volatile fuels that typically cast embers or “spotfires” great distances across continuous fuels (tundra) covering the forest floor. The root systems of these trees is much shallower than in the lower 48 states, and falling trees in burned areas are a common danger, especially when the wind blows.

Beating flames into submission with “beater” or “flapper” tools works well when moisture in the tundra is near the surface. Mark 3 pumps and smaller portable pumps are invaluable on most fires, especially when underlying duff layers are dry. Digging fireline with pulaskis only occurs where water is not available. “Tundra-trenching” is done only when necessary — digging down to mineral soil, which in Alaska is often permafrost. Firefighters peel back strips of shag-carpet like vegetation, replacing them roots-down when the fire threat has passed.

It’s not uncommon to have ice chips fly when a pulaski blade meets the permafrost. To move faster, the chains on chainsaws are often turned backwards when boring them into tundra and peat banks — some reaching six feet deep or more — to reach the permafrost.

Tussock tundra is found in low-lying and coastal areas, and walking among the tussocks can make the most graceful hikers feel vexed. Stepping on top of a tussock can end with slipping off with a twisted ankle, while stepping between tussocks can end with boots full of water. Uneven, soft ground and the lack of steep terrain in many fire-prone areas has taught Alaskan firefighters to avoid wearing boots with heels. Flat-bottomed, insulated boots made of leather and Gortex are common. Whatever boots firefighters choose, they will get wet and likely stay wet.

Rain is common during fire season in Alaska, but usually will not extinguish a fire completely until the annual “season-ending event” or southwest flow of moisture. Firefighters in Alaska are wise to bring rain gear on every deployment. Tents are optional in the lower 48, but not so in Alaska. Rain and insects usually make sleeping outside and unsheltered a miserable experience. The Alaska Smokejumpers annually hold a “tent-flip” in the springtime, in which the last person to flip a “tails” in a group coin toss wins the opportunity to not carry a tent all season long — making this one coin toss most everyone wants to lose.

Mosquitoes are legendary in Alaska, but are not actually the state bird. It is the Willow Ptarmigan. Trying to prevent mosquitoes from drawing blood is daunting for firefighters determined to avoid using Deet (Diethyl-m-toluamide) the active ingredient in “bug dope” or mosquito repellent. Deet was made by the U.S. Army in 1946 and absolutely repels mosquitoes, but it doesn’t kill them. What does not repel mosquitoes nearly as effectively are citrus-based sprays, baby lotion and elaborate, wearable bug nets, but they are entertaining options.

Cooking in fire camp is up to firefighters on remote assignments. Fresh-food boxes are 110-pound cardboard portable pantries, supplied to firefighters every three days. Pots and pans, squeeze butter, onions, cheese, lunch meat, jerky, canned food, fruit, candy, steaks, hot dogs and tortillas arrive cold. Firefighters quickly learn from local firefighters — especially Native Alaskan Crews — how to build a comfortable camp with chairs and tables and cook for themselves. Tripods made of spruce poles suspend cooking pots over hot coals, above foil-wrapped bundles of salt and peppered meat and potatoes, cooked slowly and completely.

Let’s eat.

Smokejumpers Dig Tundra Trench, File Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Firefighter and Mosquitoes Take Notes. File Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Firefighters Spray Hotspot With Hose Near Slough. File Photo by Mike McMillan – DNR
Smokejumpers (from left) David Zuares, Oded Shalom, John Dibert at Cooking Fire. File Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Firefighter Boards Float Plane On Demobilization. File Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR



Categories: AK Fire Info

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