Numerous wildfires in Southwest Alaska

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:

Continue reading “Numerous wildfires in Southwest Alaska”

Alaska couple acquitted in Sockeye Fire trial

Above: Sockeye Fire. Photo by Mat-SU Borough spokesperson.

After just one day of deliberation, a jury last week acquitted an Alaska couple on all counts related to the destructive Sockeye Fire.

Amy DeWitt, 43, and Greg Imig, were charged with a dozen counts each related to the 2015 fire. Among them: second-degree negligent burning, burning without clearing the area, allowing the wildfire to spread and reckless endangerment, the Alaska Dispatch News reported. If convicted, they could have faced fines and jail time.

The three-week trial ended Friday when the six-person jury returned “not guilty” verdicts on all counts.

From the Alaska Dispatch News: 

In a prepared statement following the verdict, Imig told reporters the fire was “very costly” for the couple, in both the physical property lost and the price of defending themselves at trial. But he said it was necessary for the “real information” to come out.

“From the beginning, (DeWitt) and I have been forthright and honest and, frankly, this trial by the State of Alaska was wasteful and unneeded,” he read. “We knew we had to take this path to clear our name.”

Defense attorneys and private investigators maintained the state’s investigation was inconclusive as to the fire’s cause. They also cited the Wildfire Origin and Cause and Determination Handbook, arguing state investigators should have better documented the property and taken more steps to allay any “confirmation bias.”

The Sockeye Fire burned 7,220 acres and destroyed 55 homes.

Jury begins deliberations for Alaska couple charged with starting 2015 Sockeye Firea

Above: Sockeye Fire, June 14, 2015. Photo by Brent Johnson.

A jury this week is weighing whether an Anchorage, Alaska, couple is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of carelessly starting the destructive Sockeye Fire in in June, 2015.

Amy DeWitt, 43, and Greg Imig, are charged with a dozen counts each related to the fire. Among them: second-degree negligent burning, burning without clearing the area, allowing the wildfire to spread and reckless endangerment, the Alaska Dispatch News reported. If convicted, they face fines and potential jail time.

From the Alaska Dispatch News coverage of the weeks-long trial:

The state contends the fire started when a burn pit on the edge of Imig’s Willow property crept out into the forest in warm and windy conditions. It was their recklessness, Senta told jurors Wednesday, that led to the blaze that burned over 7,000 acres and destroyed over 100 structures, including 55 homes.

Through the course of the trial defense attorneys disagreed, arguing the state forestry investigation was flawed in both the scope and the science.

Defense attorneys and private investigators maintained the state’s investigation was inconclusive as to the fire’s cause. They also cited the Wildfire Origin and Cause and Determination Handbook, arguing state investigators should have better documented the property and taken more steps to allay any “confirmation bias.”

The Sockeye Fire burned 7,220 acres and destroyed 55 homes.

Fire crew extracted with minutes to spare

They had to leave behind a helicopter bucket, chainsaw, pump, and a flight helmet which were all consumed by the fire.

Above: The Tok River Fire as the helicopter landed. The helicopter is in the brown grassy area near the bottom of the photo.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a report they call a “Rapid Lesson Sharing” about a close call that happened in Alaska late in the afternoon on July 14, 2016.

The report does not clearly, unequivocally, and in detail describe how and why the wind changed and affected the direction of spread, but there are two clues. The “Event Type” is “Thunderstorm Influence on IA [initial attack]”. And, the “Lessons” section has tips about attacking a fire when thunderstorms are in the area.

In this incident, a helicopter ferried an Incident Commander and three firefighters to a new fire. As they approached and made several orbits over the new start to size it up they noticed a thunderstorm in the general area. The fire was 10 to 15 acres and burning in black spruce with 50 to 75-foot flames at the head. The pilot and the helicopter manager on board selected a “tussock” (a grassy area) as a landing zone.

Below is an excerpt from the report, which you can read in full here.

****

“….The decision was made to land the helicopter, unload firefighters and equipment, and prepare the helicopter to begin making bucket drops. With the wind blowing out of the southeast, a tussock near the heel of the fire to the north and east was selected as a Landing Zone.

Tussock Believed to be a Good LZ Location

The Helicopter Manager and Pilot both felt that the tussock was a good location because it was close to the heel of the fire and the proximity of water sources. In addition, the IC felt that the tussock was in a good location and of sufficient size that it could be burned-out to create a safety zone in a worst case scenario.

When the bucket was attached, the helicopter left to begin making water drops on the heel of the fire. The IC began walking across the tussock toward the heel to size-up the fire from the ground and make a plan for containment. As he negotiated the uneven ground of the tussock, travel was slow and difficult. The IC had only gone about 200 feet when he began to feel the heat from the fire. He looked up to see the smoke column rotating and moving in the direction of the tussock area where crew had landed.

The winds had shifted approximately 90 degrees. Now the heel of the fire, which moments before had been burning with low intensity, began actively burning— heading toward the IC and his crew.

The helicopter Pilot had just filled his second bucket. He quickly dropped the water when he noticed the wind shift and flew back to the landing zone.

The IC turned around and headed back toward the Landing Zone. He got about half way back when the helicopter returned to the Landing Zone and turned on the siren to alert the fire crew.

Decision Made to Leave Their Gear and Board the Helicopter

The crew disconnected the bucket and began loading gear back on the helicopter. When the crew began packing the bucket, the Pilot told them to leave it and get on the helicopter.

The smoke column was leaning over the tussock and the pilot was concerned that if the column dropped too close on the ground, he would not have enough visibility to lift off.

The fire crew did not believe that they were in imminent danger and that they had plenty of time to load the rest of the gear before they would be affected by the flaming front. However, there was concern that if they lost visibility they would be stuck in the landing zone.

The decision was made to leave the rest of the gear and get in the Helicopter. After taking off, the helicopter made several revolutions around the area hoping to be able to land again and retrieve their gear. The fire continued burning in the direction of the Landing Zone, growing from approximately 16 acres at 1730 to an estimated 100 acres at 1810. The helicopter bucket, a chainsaw, a pump, and a flight helmet were all eventually consumed by the approaching fire…”

Lessons, Tok River Fire
From the report.

Medfra Fire survives Alaska winter, burns thousands of acres

Above: The Medfra Fire near the North Fork Kuskokwin River, northeast of McGrath, Alaska. Alaska Division of Forestry photo by Jason Jordet, May 29, 2016.

Most wildfires, if they are not completely extinguished in the summer or fall, do not continue burning over the winter and flare up again the following spring or summer. The Alaska Division of Forestry (ADF) says this appears to have happened on the 16,500-acre Soda Creek Fire 43 miles northeast of McGrath, Alaska. The fire survived the Alaska winter and continues to burn.

The ADF says as of May 30, what is now known as the Medfra Fire, had blackened an additional 2,000 acres, but more recent satellite data leads us to believe it is at least twice that size on Tuesday morning. It is likely, the ADF said, that it will merge with the Berry Creek Fire, another fire that likely survived the winter, three to four miles to the north.

Or the two fires may have already merged by today.

Medfra Fire map
Map showing heat detected by a satellite on the Medfra Fire as late as 2:14 a.m. MDT, May 31, 2016.
From the ADF, May 30, 2016:

…The Alaska Division of Forestry is formulating a plan of attack to protect any structures and Native allottments that may be threatened and utilizing natural barriers to check the fire spread toward the small settlement of Medfra about 20 miles to the southwest. North winds Sunday night kept the fire burning through the night and winds were expected to continue today.

The fire is burning along the north bank of the North Fork Kuskokwim River. One Native allotment and one cabin are threatened by the fire and State Forestry is developing a site protection plan to protect any values at risk.

The Medfra Fire was called in as a smoke report at 10:25 a.m. Sunday. It is suspected to be a holdover fire from last summer’s 16,500-acre Soda Creek Fire, as it originated in the Soda Creek Fire burn scar and spread into an unburned area with fresh fuel. Fueled by gusty north winds, the fire grew rapidly despite water drops from a helicopter and retardant drops from air tankers. By 2 p.m., the fire was estimated at 50 to 100 acres and by 6 p.m. it was estimated at 500 acres. The last estimated at 9 p.m. was 1,650 acres and growing.

Air retardant tankers dropped several loads of retardant on the fire Sunday to keep it north of the river and thus far the fire is burning parallel to the river on the north side. Twelve personnel are working on the fire on the ground, including eight smokejumpers from the BLM Alaska Fire Service. Several crews from Southwest Alaska villages are staged in McGrath and are ready to join the suppression effort when a plan is formulated.

The Berry Creek Fire burning 3-4 miles north of the Medfra Fire is expected to merge with the fire today. The Berry Creek Fire was reported at approximately 8:40 p.m. Sunday by an air retardant tanker working on the Medfra Fire. It too could be a holdover fire as it originated in an old burn scar. It was initially estimated at 5 acres burning in mostly black spruce but it grew to approximately 50 acres within an hour and was estimated at at least 320 acres as of 10 p.m. Tankers dropped two loads of retardant on the fire Sunday night but the intensity of the fire was such that the retardant did not have much of an effect.

How wildland firefighters saved the last Stinson A Trimotor

They had about 24 hours before the fire bore down on them.

Above: Bureau of Land Management wildland firefighters in Alaska pose in 1968 with the Stinson A Trimotor aircraft that they protected from a wildfire. Photo provided by Doug Lutz and used with permission.

In 1968 Doug Lutz and three of his companions left their jobs at Glacier National Park in Montana to “seek fame and fortune in Alaska”. They got hired by the Bureau of Land Management as wildland firefighters and were soon put to work on a wildfire within sight of Mt. McKinley. They only had hand tools, since at the time the logistics of providing gasoline for chain saws in the remote tundra was difficult, Mr. Lutz said.

With 15 of his co-workers, he volunteered for an assignment to protect a very unique aircraft from an approaching wildfire. It was the last Stinson A Trimotor in existence at that time, NC15165, one of only 31 or 32 that were built. It crashed in 1947 and J. D. “Red” Berry had been trying off and on since 1964 to get it out of the tundra.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Disciples of Flight written by Mr. Lutz, used here with his permission:

…[On] August 11, a helicopter set our crew of sixteen men down near the Stinson Trimotor somewhere near the Toklat and Kantishna Rivers to prepare for the oncoming fire. We figured we had about 24 hours to dig a fire line down to permafrost, cut the existing trees down, drag them to the outside of the fire line, and back-burn the fuel before the fire hit. We worked feverishly to prepare for the onslaught, resting only when we dropped from exhaustion. I marveled at the very reason for our task, as the Stinson Trimotor, partially dismantled, was the most incredible aircraft I had ever seen. The interior appeared to be in excellent condition and with a little imagination, it was easy to imagine what a splendid machine it was in its prime.

We thought we were pretty well prepared as the fire reached an old CAT [dozer] a mile or two away that we were told had broken down trying to get the Stinson out sometime before. With a great explosion of the fuel drums, we knew our time was near. As the front hit us, the incredible heat, smoke, and wind generated by Z-83 (the BLM fire designation) defied comprehension and lies in my memory as the most vivid reminder of my insignificance in the grand plan of things. As an 18-year old boy, the next few days would transform me into a man with a little greater appreciation for life.

The only thing we could do with the fire was to constantly walk around the fire line and put out any spot fires that may have jumped. The smoke was so intense that the only way one could breathe was to drop to the ground, put your face on the tundra, and breathe the air pockets. Visibility was nil and the heat incredible. Thank God for Visine! We ran out of food on about the third day, drinking water was nearly gone, and our radio to the outside broke down. We were later told that BLM headquarters had pretty much given us up for lost and were contemplating notifying next of kin. Needless to say, we survived, but it certainly was no picnic. I recall having a rousing game of poker inside the Stinson A, although just being alive was the biggest jackpot we could think of at the time.

[…]

A snapshot was taken on the fourth day, August 14, by one of the guys who sent me a small print later that fall. The most vivid picture, however, resides only in my mind as the helicopter raised up to take us home. The two acres or so within the fire line was resplendent green, and as far as you could see in every direction was starkly black. And the Stinson Trimotor sitting in the center of the green circle, looking so proud and incredibly alive, remains as one of the most significant and indelible images of my life…

Mr. Lutz is in the photo above, in the bottom row, second from the right. He said the photo was taken by a member of the helicopter rescue crew with, he believes, Terry Wheeler’s camera.

By the early 1970s J.D. “Red” Berry, who had acquired the rights to the Stinson in 1964, retrieved the aircraft and sold it to Eugene Coppock. Mr. Coppock rebuilt it and had it flying again in 1979. The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum purchased it in 1988 and ten years later sold it to Greg Herrick’s Golden Wings Museum at Blaine Airport in Minnesota, who restored it. H.O Aircraft  took on that job which required taking the aircraft COMPLETELY APART down to the frame, portions of which had to be fabricated and replaced.

Stenson A Trimotor
The restored Stenson A Trimotor. Photo by Ahunt at Sun ‘n Fun 2006 in Lakeland, Florida.

Mr. Lutz gave us some additional information about the Stenson A Trimotor:

Of the 30 or 31 Stinson A’s to be built, they lived a short life as a passenger plane as the DC2 and DC3 soon displaced them. Four of the Stinson A’s made it to Australia and the others were relegated to mail run airmail, although Air India used them commercially. They were perfect for bush pilots in Alaska. NC15165 crashed in 1947 on a mail run and sat there until Red Berry started an incredible journey to get it out of the tundra.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Doug Lutz.