Above: A photo taken Monday of the 1,558-acre Kenakuchuk Creek Fire burning about 40 miles north of Dillingham. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Firefighters are leap frogging from one fire to another to protect villages, cabins and other structures in Southwest Alaska after more than a dozen new wildfires were started by lightning strikes in the past three days.
The Alaska Division of Forestry reports that as of Wednesday morning there are 15 active fires burning in the area, which covers an 88-million acre swath of Southwest Alaska from McGrath to Dillingham. Six of the 15 fires are staffed with firefighters while the remainder are being monitored.
The highest priority fire remains the 1,000-acre Bell Creek Fire (#161) burning less than 2 miles from the village of Crooked Creek on the Kuskokwim River, about 110 miles southwest of McGrath.
There are 49 personnel working on the fire, including eight smokejumpers from the BLM Alaska Fire Service and two initial attack crews from the Alaska Division of Forestry.
The fire doubled in size on Tuesday and was active again on Wednesday, prompting fire managers to launch air tankers for retardant drops on the south edge of the fire closest to the village in hopes of slowing its progress. The fire is backing over a ridge toward the village. Firefighters abandoned attempts at direct attack on Tuesday and are focusing their efforts on building indirect line on the north edge of the village closest to the fire. Personnel are planning to conduct burnout operations today in that area to deprive the fire of fuel if it threatens to reach the village. Firefighters will also be plumbing structures on the northern edge of the villages with pumps, hoses and sprinklers.
The Pitka Fork Fire (#160), a 6,600-acre fire burning about 60 miles east of McGrath, also received attention on Tuesday. The McGrath dispatch office received multiple reports of increased fire activity and a detection aircraft was launched to assess any potential threat. Multiple structures were identified in the area and a load of smokejumpers and two air tankers were flown to the fire for structure protection.
Tankers dropped five loads of retardant around structures on the south side of the fire and smokejumpers prepped structures with pumps, hoses and sprinklers. Weather permitting, the smokejumpers plan to conduct burnout operations today to fortify structure protection measures that were taken.
Two new lightning-caused fires – the Black River Fire (#172) and Paiyun Creek Fire (#174) – were reported in the area on Tuesday but neither posed a significant threat.
The Black River Fire (#172) was reported 38 miles south of McGrath in a full protection area. Helitack was launched from McGrath to size up the fire and reported it to be 8 acres burning in mixed hardwoods.
An air tanker dropped one load of retardant to keep the fire from spreading into a spruce stand and a helicopter was used to drop water on the fire to keep it in check while helitack personnel on the ground worked to build line around the fire. Helitack personnel secured line around 60 percent of the fire Tuesday evening and the fire received light precipitation overnight. A Type 2 crew from Lower Kalskag was shuttled into the fire on Wednesday to continue building line and mop up.
Here’s a rundown of the other fires burning in the Southwest Area: