Fire managers visit Upper Yukon Zone communities

Fire management officials from the Alaska Fire Service visited the communities of Venetie and Fort Yukon on Thursday, July 7th to provide updates on local fire activity and discuss the strategies and tactics used during an intense fire year with record setting lightning.

Upper Yukon Zone, Fire Management Officer Dustin Widmer
and Venetie Community Leaders discuss fires across Alaska

Acting Upper Yukon Zone Fire Management Officer Dustin Widmer flew to Venetie on Thursday to meet with First Chief Paul Tritt and his staff in person. As a former firefighter with the BLM AFS North Star Fire Crew, First Chief Tritt has seen some of the challenges with containing wildfires in Alaska.

After a short briefing on fires across the entire state, discussions focused more than 50 active fires spread across the Upper Yukon Zone and specifically the three staffed fires on Venetie Tribal lands burning in areas assigned full protection in northeast Alaska.

Alaska is known as a land of extremes and the Yukon Flats, a low-lying area centered on the confluence of the Yukon, Porcupine and Teedriinjik (Chandalar) rivers, where some of these fires are burning is a perfect example of that. This is where fire season lingers in the summer well past other areas of the state. Straddling the Arctic Circle, Fort Yukon can experience -70 in the winter and 90 degrees in the summer.

“Decades of full suppression on Tribal lands south of Venetie, and the lack of recent fires has made containing and stopping new starts much more difficult,” Dustin Widmer told many of the people who stopped by to talk to fire managers that day.

Map of burn history for the Yukon flats showing limited to no prior fire history on Venetie lands
Fire History on Venetie lands 1940-Present

As strong thunderstorms developed in northern Alaska every day, firefighters and the logistical supply lines that get them the resources they need became stretched thin.

As of July 13, there were 264 active fires burning across Alaska. There are six complexes of fires and 17 additional staff fires. So far this season, 516 fires have burned 2.8 million acres. After experiencing prolonged dry conditions across the state for May and June, July ushered in a new challenge – lightning. The Interior and Northeastern Alaska had 11 straight days of Red Flag Warnings due to the abundance of lightning. There were 67,000 lightning strikes recorded across the state in that time span. This produced 85 new fires in Central Alaska alone, which has been a source of competition for firefighting resources.

Wildland fire managers prioritize their initial response to new fires based on pre-determined options outlines in the Alaska Interagency Fire Management Plan and the firefighting resources available. While management options drive initial response, fires are assessed as they continue to develop and decisions about strategy and resource allocation are made based on the current situation regardless of management option. Firefighter and public safety will always be the number one priority for wildfire response.

Firefighters at Ft. Yukon prepare to send supplies
requested by firefighters to the field

During a busy fire year, the remote field station in Fort Yukon becomes a bustling hub of personnel, equipment and aircraft of all shapes and sizes. Aircraft from AFS facilities at Fairbanks deliver everything from fresh food and water to hose, pumps, fuel, and clothing to Fort Yukon. Alaska Fire Cache team members can then receive, warehouse and distribute the supplies that firefighters in the field need to remain operational and effective. Fort Yukon also provides a short term staging location for firefighters being moved from one fire to another where crews can grab a hot meal and get on an airplane, helicopter or sometimes a boat to go to a new assignment.

Widmer stated after the trip that it is always valuable for him to meet the Alaskans that are directly affected by the fires burning in the Upper Yukon Zone and the Alaska Fire Service team members that keep the entire system functioning. Another visit to the Fort Yukon area has been planned for this week.

Categories: AK Fire Info

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