Firefighters gain ground containing two wildfires burning near Southwest Alaska villages

Firefighters are making good progress in containing two human-caused fires burning in Southwest Alaska, one near the village of Pilot Point on the Alaska Peninsula and one near the village of Akiachak on the Kuskokwim River.

Smoke rising from the woods next to a fish camp prior to the fire burning multiple structures in the fish camp.
A picture of the fish camp taken by a local pilot on Monday evening, May 24, 2021 prior to multiple structures being burned by the Kiktak Island Fire the next day. Villagers thought they had put the fire out Monday before it flared up again on Tuesday and burned the structures.

The Kiktak Island Fire (#112) burning near the village of Akiachak did not increase in size on Wednesday and was still estimated at 180 acres as of Thursday morning. No containment percentage was listed on the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center’s daily situation report.

The fire is burning along the south bank of a slough of the Kuskokwim River, about 2 miles south of Akiachak. The fire destroyed a total of 10 structures in a fish camp along the slough before 12 BLM Alaska Fire Service smokejumpers arrived on scene.

The fire started on Monday night and local residents at the fish camp tried to put it out but it flared up on Tuesday and smokejumpers were called in. Using multiple retardant drops from two air tankers, as well as water drops from a helicopter, the smokejumpers worked Tuesday to secure the head of the fire by deploying hose lines and cutting a saw line around it.

An aerial photo of a fish camp with several structures bured by a wildfire
A photo of the fish camp on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 after multiple structures were burned by the Kiktak Island Fire. Tim Whitesell/Alaska Division of Forestry

Fire activity decreased significantly on Wednesday, according to fire managers, with no visible smoke observed on the west flank and minimal heat observed at the head and on the interior of the fire. Smokejumpers and a squad of Helitack from McGrath finished constructed saw line around the head of the fire and secured an area on the eastern flank on Wednesday.

The Fairbanks-based White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack Crew arrived on the fire Wednesday and they will be working today to secure the head and east flank of the fire before beginning mop-up operations. The 10 buildings that were destroyed were a combination of cabins and outbuildings but it’s unclear exactly what the buildings were because they burned to the ground. There were several outbuildings in the fish camp. Smokejumpers were able to protect one primary structure from burning upon their arrival.  

As of Thursday morning, the Pilot Point Fire (#104) was 60 percent contained. While the estimated burned acreage increased significantly from 600 acres to 3,750 acres, most of that increase was a result of better mapping rather than increased fire activity.

The fire started on Monday when a fire escaped from the local dump and spread into grass. Villagers from Pilot Point tried to control the fire but were unable to do so due to high winds. Pilot Point is a small, remote village on the Alaska Peninsula about 370 miles southwest of Anchorage.

There were  25 personnel working on the fire as of Thursday morning. The 21-person Pioneer Peak Hotshot Crew worked the northern perimeter of the fire on Wednesday to secure three-quarters of a mile containment line and will continue working to secure that portion of line today, pushing to the west. Four BLM Alaska Fire Service smokejumpers will work to secure the same line from west to east, starting at the ocean and working east with the goal of connected with the Pioneer Peak hotshots.

Smokejumpers also burned off unburned islands west of the fire on Wednesday to reduce smoke impacts on the village airstrip. A bulldozer was used to improve 1 mile of an old road to serve as a contingency line on the northeast corner of the fire. The dozer will continue constructing that contingency line today. A helicopter is supporting ground efforts with water drops on active parts of the fire, as well as logistical missions.

Eight of the 12 smokejumpers deployed for initial attack on Monday were pulled off the fire Wednesday to be available for initial attack on new fire starts.

A map showing the perimeter of the Pilot Point Fire (#104) burning near the village of Pilot Point on Ugashik Bay.
A map showing the perimeter of the Pilot Point Fire (#104) burning near the village of Pilot Point on Ugashik Bay.

Categories: Active Wildland Fire, AK Fire Info

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