Southwest Alaska Area Fire Information Update – July 26

Six 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. Crews are being shuttled between fires to maximize their effectiveness, while others are being demobilized as they reach the end of their two-to-three week assignments. No new fires were reported and no lightning activity was recorded. Sixty-eight fires remain active in the Southwest Alaska Area.

Wet weather is predicted across much of the Southwest Alaska into next week. Ground fuels remain dry in areas not receiving wetting rain, and fire managers are re-mapping existing fires.

Two fixed-wing logistical airplanes and three helicopters are based at the DNR McGrath Fire Base, with one helicopter staffing fires near Aniak. Five helitak firefighters are staffing initial attack modules at the DNR McGrath Helibase. 414,422 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 Medicine Creek Fire (#673) was started by lightning on July 23, five miles northwest of Medfra. The eight-acre fire is burning in black spruce and tundra. Five helitak crewmembers  from Utah and ten firefighters from southwest area remote communities are in place and mopping up. The fire received significant rainfall on Thursday.

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 47-acre fire, burning in black spruce and tundra. The fire received heavy rain on Thursday.

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 67,273 acres, burning in black spruce and threatening structures at the Donlin Mine. The Dalton Hotshots were demobilized from the fire on Friday. A 10-person fire module from Cascade, Idaho is 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 3,097-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. The Bear Divide Hotshots were demobilized from the fire Thursday. The incident commander and the Southwest Area #1 Crew are in place, comprised of 10 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 9,573 acres and is being managed with the Aghuluk Fire (#544), mapped at 1,332 acres in size. Both fires are burning in mixed spruce and threatening cabins along the Kuskokwim River. One smokejumper, one helicopter and 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 Takotna Fire (#665) started by lightning on July 23, one mile east of Takotna. The fire is burning in black spruce and seven acres 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 687 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 447-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 Iditarod River Fire (#553) started by lightning on July 14, 12 miles southwest of Flat. It was re-mapped at 410 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 1,332 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 1,051 acres in size.

The Gemuna Creek Fire (#540) was started by lightning on July 13, six miles northwest of Crooked Creek. The fire is 288 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 446 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 548 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 29-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 228 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 420 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 3,874 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 2,965 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 658 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 3,097 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 5,484 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 Fire Management in Southwest Alaska.”

Southwest Alaska Area Fire Management Officer (AFMO) Seth Ross pedals his bike swiftly toward helibase. One of three nearby helicopters begins to spool up, its rotors gaining momentum as five initial attack (IA) helitak firefighters wait inside, ready. Ross motions to the helibase manager to come over just before he motions to marshal the ship away.

The two talk until the roar of the single turbine engine makes it impossible. Ross is undeterred, yelling over the deafening noise. Now using hand gestures, Ross points toward himself and then the ship, relaying his priorities for the crew. The helitak manager nods in agreement and turns toward the ship, giving the command to lift off.

Ross served five years in the U.S. Air Force. He also worked as a Silver City Hotshot in New Mexico, a helicopter rappeler in Idaho, and an AFMO for the Tongas National Forest.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” said Ross, smiling. In his fourth year leading operations at the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Forestry (DOF) McGrath Fire Base, Ross has developed a style tailor-made to lead one of the last forward-operating wildland firefighting bases in the world. Most of Ross’ staff are temporary emergency firefighters (EFF). Ten permanent seasonal positions were cut in 2015 in an effort to scale back costs.

“We make it work,” said Ross. I have great admiration for the dedication and professionalism of the staff here, and we have a really strong connection to the local community.”

Ross shares responsibility for managing wildfire protection of 88 million acres of Alaska’s Southwest Area with MatSu Area Forestry Fire Management Officer (FMO) Phil Blydenbergh, based in Palmer, 228 miles southeast of McGrath. The DNR also operates DOF stations in Copper River, Tok, Delta, and Fairbanks.

“It’s a big shared area,” said Ross of the MatSu-Southwest Area, explaining how the MatSu Area differs from greater Southwest Alaska. “MatSu has a high concentration of urban interface fires, but out here we’re wildfire almost exclusively,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for our firefighters to be versatile in both capacities.” When fire season ramped up in 2019, Ross’ priorities remained protecting villages threatened by fire including Red Devil and Nikolai, and commercial infrastructure including the Nixon and Donlin Mines.

“It’s easier to relay our needs from here in McGrath,” explained Ross. “We get our orders and our staffing right, and everybody here is used to wearing more than one hat.” As fire activity and new fire starts increase, Ross looks for support staff that not only has Alaska experience, but knowledge of the McGrath area. “We start with getting things done ourselves and then ask for help as we need it.” said Ross.

This season that support included Planning Section Chief Brentwood Reid, formerly a permanent seasonal initial attack technician at the McGrath Fire Base. “He’s a top gun, and he makes a great product,” Ross said, referring to incident action summaries and maps made by Reid and his planning and situation staff. Other support positions joining the effort this season included specialists hired in expanded dispatch, logistics and public information.

Fire management at the McGrath Fire Base adheres to the Incident Command System (ICS), the framework for managing all-risk incidents that reach beyond wildfires, including natural and human-caused disasters such as the attacks of September 11. The ICS designates positions for command and general staff, and everyone knows what their job responsibilities entail.

Ross implements several training simulations in the springtime for each of the units at the base. “We simulate having multiple fires on the landscape, involving everyone from dispatch to the ramp and warehouse to the kitchen,” said Ross. By the time fire season visits the Southwest Area, Ross’ staff at the McGrath Fire Base is prepared. “The units and staff don’t need minute details every day — they operate better without micro-management. They know what to do,” nodded Ross.

Southwest Alaska Area AFMO Seth Ross Talks With Helitak Crewmember Over the Noise of a Nearby Helicopter at the DNR McGrath Helibase. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Helitak Crew Loads Initial Attack Helicopter at the McGrath Helibase.
Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR
Operational Briefing at the DNR McGrath Fire Base Dining Hall. Photo: Mike McMillan – DNR

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: