ALASKA WILDFIRE ROUNDUP: Nulato fire turns, Interior evacuations continue
Image by Stefan Hinman/ Mat-Su Borough photo.
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The course of a fire threatening the Interior Alaska village of Nulato has turned, as fire crews continue to fight other wildfires which have prompted evacuations across the region.
Some of the worst action against the Nulato Fire, which had grounded aircraft due to heavy smoke, took place Monday according to an Alaska Interagency Coordination Center report on the blaze’s progress. “By early afternoon, the fire had spotted across both the Nulato River road and the dozer line,” fire officials wrote. “As the tankers tried to knock down the head, and personnel extinguish the spots, it was discovered that the fire had spotted into Nulato. Crews were able extinguish the spots in Nulato, however a spot fire was able to establish itself on the other side of the structures and began to run up the hill, basically surrounding Nulato by fire.”
By Tuesday, however, reports indicated firefighters had received a respite from the flames’ advance. AICC said that Nulato’s airport will be closed until the fire passes. “Crews extinguished small spots within Nulato and continue to strengthen the black line around town,” fire officials wrote. “Weather observed was clear skies but smoky most of the day with moderate fire behavior of group and single tree torching occurring as the fire grew to the north today, pushing it away from Nulato.” Interagency management team spokesman Malcolm Evans said
Wednesday that he couldn’t confirm a statement from the coordination center that the Nulato Fire had grown to an estimated 1,200 acres. The village’s only access remains by boat from the Yukon River, with about 50 people evacuated but 100 others remaining as smoke prevents aircraft from touching down at the local airstrip. “It’s still at 800 acres,” Evans said. “The airport is still socked in.”
Evans said Tanana remains bracketed by nearby wildfires, including the 37,000-acre Tozitna Fire 4.5 miles to the northwest, the 15,000-acre Spicer Creek Fire 13 miles to the northeast, and the 17,000-acre Hay Slough Fire 14 miles south-southwest. The Tanana Chiefs Conference said Tuesday that it had been coordinating the evacuation of more than 60 people from the roughly 240-person community. “Their evacuation is voluntary evacuations, for sensitive individuals including elders and children,” Evans said.
Crews also reported progress in fighting the Long Lake Fire, reported at 9,000 acres Tuesday after it merged with the Moose Creek Fire. The blaze was stopped within half a mile of Northway Village near Tok by extensive air support overnight Monday.
“The combined fires continued to grow (Tuesday) with erratic winds,” fire officials wrote. “Fire personnel worked on enforcing structure protection and creating containment lines around the perimeter. A Type 3 team is in the process of transitioning into command of the fire. On Wednesday firefighters plan to establish more lines around the fire and additional resource protection.”
An information officer with the fire's management team, Jim Schwarber, said Wednesday that the fire’s footprint dramatically grew overnight, nearly doubling in size. “The fire is now 17,100 acres which is about 8,000 acres of increase,” Schwarber said. “Fortunately, all that area of increase is away from the village, which is likely to be beneficial.” Despite the jump in the fire’s size, Schwarber said locals haven’t had any buildings lost to the blaze. “At this point, we’re not aware of any structures that were destroyed by the fire,” Schwarber said. “One of the structures that was uninhabited had flames come within 50 feet.” He credited Blackhawk helicopters with heavy water buckets for helping to stop the fire’s advance toward Northwest Village overnight.
“They used their 800-gallon buckets and used them to drop water on parts of the fire line that most concerned firefighters,” Schwarber said. “They felt that they completed their mission -- they did good work there, the fire managers are happy, the community’s happy, things are much calmer and the level of concern has reduced.” Dense smoke from the fire has helped the area cool down, another boon for fire crews. “It was smoky, it was cooler, and the lower temperatures really assisted firefighters,” Schwarber said. “They’re still at risk there; however, their level of risk has diminished.”
About 16,300 acres have been burned by the Rex Complex Fire, including the Kobe and Fish Creek fires. Roughly 25 people were evacuated from the area Tuesday, with one person deciding to shelter in place.
The fire's management team said in a Wednesday online update that crews have met with mixed success in trying to protect buildings in the area, roughly 6 miles northeast of Mile 275 of the Parks Highway.
"Crews over the last several days have been making progress on these fires, but still have a long way to go," fire officials wrote. "In the beginning, there were some structures lost, but with more resources now available, consisting of dozers, air attack, and more firefighters on the ground, there have been no more losses. Dozens of structures have been protected and saved, by these additional assets."
The Fairbanks area’s Baker Creek subdivision near Minto Flats remains evacuated due to the Baker Creek Fire. Evans didn’t have details on how many people had left the evacuation area from Mile 131 to Mile 137 of the Eureka Highway Wednesday. “That one is 1,800 acres,” Evans said. “(It) is 2 miles west from the Elliott Highway.”
In Southcentral Alaska, crews have reached 92 percent containment of the 7,220-acre Sockeye Fire, according to an Alaska Wildland Fire Information blog post. Mat-Su Borough officials said Tuesday that 55 homes have been destroyed in the fire, with an additional 44 properties damaged. “Firefighters continue to patrol fire lines and work the remaining portions of the uncontained perimeter along scattered sections of the Susitna River, Willow Creek and Little Willow Creek,” fire officials wrote.
Kenai-area residents affected by the 7,352-acre Card Street Fire and other nearby wildfires may now apply for state individual-assistance disaster aid, according to a Tuesday post on the Kenai Peninsula Borough's fire blog. Applications are being taken by phone at 1-855- 745-7131 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, or online at the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management's website.
DHSEM spokesman Jeremy Zidek said Wednesday that Kenai Peninsula Borough applicants are eligible for up to $16,450 in individual assistance, as well as temporary housing up to 18 months for displaced homeowners or three months for renters. The details of the program are nearly identical to those of individual assistance for Sockeye Fire victims announced earlier this week.
"The only difference with the Kenai Peninsula Borough disaster declaration is that the deadline is Aug. 18 and not Aug. 14," Zidek said. As of Wednesday, AICC’s main wildfire log (PDF) listed 278 active wildfires across the state.
Kyle Hopkins, Tulsi Patil, Chris Klint and Austin Baird contributed to this story.