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Wildfire updates: Hess Creek continues to grow, Swan Lake conditions improve

The Hess Creek fire has burned 149,428 acres so far. It is the largest wildfire in the United States so far this year. (Photo from the Alaska Fire Service, BLM)

Wildland fire crews are attacking 41 fires in Alaska as a red flag warning is in effect for much of the state.

Hess Creek fire

Smoke from the Hess Creek fire in Interior Alaska receded enough Tuesday afternoon that officials were able to fly the perimeter of the fire. They now estimate its size to be 149,428 acres -- smaller than Tuesday’s estimate of 172,548 acres, but still the largest fire in the United States this season.

The Hess Creek fire continues to grow, moving generally south, and crossed the Elliott Highway on Tuesday near Mile 62. It continues to threaten mining camps and structures near Livengood, officials reported.

“The highway isn’t closed, however visibility is really poor in places in that valley corridor,” said Sarah Wheeler, a public information officer with the Southern Idaho Type 3 team managing the fire.

Firefighters preserve the Livengood Cemetery from the Hess Creek fire in Interior Alaska on Wednesday morning. (Greg Mann / Southern Idaho Type 3 Incident Management Team)

Wheeler said no additional structures had been destroyed as the fire spread south Tuesday, and firefighters were able to save the historic Livengood Cemetery. She said some of the wooden tombstones dated back to 1918.

Temperatures at the fire Wednesday were slightly lower, she said, but the fire is still actively burning in areas with black spruce.

Shovel Creek fire

Closer to Fairbanks, fire crews at the Shovel Creek fire finished a five-day operation to burn additional fuel between control lines along its eastern and southern edge.

Cassidy Kern, a spokeswoman with the Pacific Northwest Team 2 incident management team, said they expect the line to act like a “catcher’s mitt” to prevent the fire from moving into neighborhoods there as winds begin to pick back up. The Shovel Creek fire has now reached 15% containment and burned 18,558 acres.

Kern said along with structure protection and addressing spot fires, firefighters are focused on “holding and securing the line now that we’re looking at some wind.” The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for that area and much of the state. Red flag warnings are issued when high temperatures, very low humidity and stronger winds create increased fire danger in an area.

The strategic firing operation just north of the Old Murphy Dome Road between Martin and the Dome as of 11 p.m. Friday, July 5, 2019. (PNW2 Barry Schullanberger)

Fire managers are using drones with a thermal camera to look for the locations of hot spots and the fire’s rate of spread, said Kale Casey with the Pacific Northwest Team 2. The drones, which can go where it may be unsafe for firefighters, can be equipped with “plastic sphere dispensers," he said. The “ping-pong-like” spheres are used to ignite small fires to burn up fuel within a control line that might otherwise feed the larger fire.

As of Wednesday morning, evacuation levels around the fire have been downgraded by the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

No communities are currently being asked to evacuate. The neighborhoods of McCloud, Martin, and Perfect Perch are under a Level 2 evacuation order, while the Chatanika River corridor, Drouin, Hardluck, Moose Mountain, Coyote Jones, Hattie Creek, Lincoln Creek, Murphy and Vancouver neighborhoods are at a Level 1 order.

According to the Division of Forestry, some roads were going to be opened Wednesday allowing access to the neighborhoods of Martin, Perfect Pitch and the Chatanika River area.

Air quality is rated as “unhealthy” in Fairbanks. The Fairbanks Memorial Hospital has opened a 24-hour respite room for people trying to escape the smoke.

Swan Lake fire

Conditions at the Swan Lake fire near Sterling have improved due to lower temperatures and higher humidity. The fire is burning in higher alpine areas where the fuel is grass and lichen, rather than highly flammable stands of black spruce and other trees.

A community meeting about the Swan Lake fire was held at the Cooper Landing School on Wednesday evening.

Smoke from the Swan Lake fire continues to travel north into Anchorage, and added to what looked like overcast conditions in the city. The National Weather Service in Anchorage forecasts areas of smoke and lower temperatures for the rest of the workweek.

The Swan Lake Fire continues to burn on July 3, 2019. (Alaska Division of Forestry)

Malaspina and Montana Creek fires

Bob Shindelar, the new incident commander of the Malaspina and Montana Creek fires, said in an interview with KTNA that each fire is 30% contained. The Montana Creek fire has burned 367 acres and the Malaspina fire has burned 80 acres of land.

More than 160 firefighters are working toward a goal of 300 feet of “mopped-up” perimeter around each of the fires. This involves “seeking out any hot spots along the fire edge,” Shindelar said, and he expects that this could contain the fires.

Shindelar said mop-up operations for Montana Creek should last three to four days and he hopes to have the Malaspina fire contained in another three to four days after that.

Fire officials reported that evacuation levels are now set at Level 1 -- meaning that residents should be prepared to evacuate if necessary -- for the area around the fires, with the exception of one house that remains under evacuation orders.

The Malaspina Fire as seen from the air on Sunday afternoon, July 7, 2019. (Tim Whitesell/Alaska Division of Forestry)

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