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Rural Alaska

Lightning ignites wildfires in Southwest and Western Alaska

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published June 8, 2017

More than a dozen wildfires are burning in Southwest and Western Alaska after a series of lightning strikes this week, state fire officials said, and firefighters spread across the region to battle several of them.

At least 12 of the 15 fires burning in a region between McGrath and Dillingham were started by lightning this week, Alaska Division of Forestry officials said Wednesday afternoon on the Alaska Wildland Fire Information blog.

Bell Creek fire

The lightning-caused Bell Creek fire has burned to within 2 miles of the village of Crooked Creek along the Kuskokwim River. Efforts Wednesday to halt the blaze, about 110 miles southwest of McGrath, included air tankers dropping retardant and fire crews readying pumps, hoses and sprinklers to protect structures along the village's northern edge.

"The fire is backing over a ridge toward the village," fire officials wrote. "Firefighters abandoned attempts at direct attack on Tuesday and are focusing their efforts on building an indirect line on the north edge of the village closest to the fire."

Tim Mowry, with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said Bell Creek was the division's "No. 1 priority" wildfire Thursday, with 58 people working to stop it at the structures.

"They're tying that into an old burn, which they're using as a contingency line — they're really working to plumb things up," Mowry said. "That fire doubled in size to 2,100 acres, but that growth was mostly north and east, which is good for the village."

No evacuations from Crooked Creek had been ordered, Mowry said, although residents were preparing for them on a contingency basis.

Deadmans Slough fire

Lightning also started the roughly 400-acre Deadmans Slough fire within 2 miles of Anvik, in the federal Alaska Fire Service's Galena Zone to the north. That fire was 30 percent contained Tuesday, but service spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said 33 people remained assigned to it Thursday.

"They made really good progress in the last couple of days but fire activity really died down," Ipsen said. "It's not an immediate threat to the village, and we were concerned that when the wind switched, smoke was floating into the village, but it doesn't sound too bad."

Galena Zone fires

The Galena Zone saw 19 new fires Tuesday after "a rash of lightning hitting the southwestern Yukon River corridor."

"Many of these new fires were discovered along the western coast from Unalakleet to Point Romanof when Galena Zone personnel flew over the area where lightning was detected earlier," fire officials wrote. "Mother Nature put out some of the fires with rain. Aircraft, including the water-scooping Fire Boss airplanes, were used to prevent others from spreading."

Other fires

Smokejumpers supported by a pair of air tankers were deployed Tuesday to protect structures from the 4,030-acre Pitka Fork fire, burning roughly 60 miles east of McGrath. Officials reduced the acreage of the fire by about 2,500 on Thursday due to better mapping.

Three other fires in Southwest Alaska, from 8 to 45 acres in size, were staffed by firefighters as of Thursday, officials said. Nine wildfires in the region, including two 12,000-acre burns 42 miles west and 75 miles southwest of McGrath, plus blazes ranging down to a half-acre fire about 50 miles southwest of Bethel, were being monitored because they hadn't threatened structures.

About 230 people were still working to form a perimeter around the 832-acre North Robertson fire, burning in the Interior roughly 30 miles northwest of Tok, which Mowry said was roughly 60 percent contained. A burn suspension is in effect for the Tok area; campfires under 3 feet wide remain legal but authorities ask people not to start any "until conditions have changed."

Ipsen said additional resources have been requested from Outside as Alaska's wildfire responses ramp up, including 28 smokejumpers from Idaho and other states. Two air retardant tankers are flying in from Canada, and a pair of water-scooper aircraft were expected to arrive Thursday from Minnesota.

Although the wildfire season started later than expected for much of the state, Ipsen said it hasn't been out of the ordinary.

"The outlooks predict we'll have a normal fire season, which is between 1 and 2 million acres burned," Ipsen said. "It just depends on what happens later on, and it depends on lightning and if that lightning is accompanied by rain."