Alaska Firefighters Help With Lower 48 Wildfires

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by Russ Slaten

Alaska's fire season has seen a slightly slower start than previous years. Two staffed wildfires are nearly contained, and the Bear Creek Fire about 70 miles southwest of Fairbanks reached 'Type 2' status yesterday, with officials developing a demobilization plan.

Five Alaska fire crews were sent to Wyoming today, with five more set to go Wednesday.

Fire crews from the Alaska Division of Forestry and the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service were originally scheduled to handle the Clay Springs Fire in Utah. In flight, the 100 plus personnel were reassigned to the Fontenelle Fire in Wyoming.

Officials said the Fontenelle Fire has burned more than 52,000 acres. The fire began a week ago nearly 20 miles west of the western Wyoming town of Big Piney.

Area road closures have caused a significant economic impact due to a shutdown of gas, oil and helium production.

Officials have seen extreme behavior with running fire in the grass and sage. The blaze is being fueled by heavy dead and down timber. Most recently, the fire made a three-mile push to the northeast.

Officials are aiming to secure a perimeter along the eastern and southern flanks of the fire.

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center officials said more crews may be sent to the lower 48 depending on the necessity, and whether or not Alaska fires stay contained.

"The goal, first of all, is to ensure the safety of the firefighters that are working on these fires. The second goal is to provide assistance to the folks that are on the ground there, and to work side-by-side with the crews that are already there to try to contain this fire," said Mel Slater, spokesperson for the BLM Alaska Fire Service.

This was the first Alaska firefighter deployment to the lower 48 since 2008. Crews came from Nondalton, Kenai, Copper River, Venetie, and Fort Yukon.

"I was in Texas last year at the Bastrop Fire where 1500 homes burned down in less than 48 hours there. So the potential for such a catastrophe is there, and the idea is to be there early enough to try and get resources prioritized into the areas that threats may be the highest value of risk," said Tom Kurth of the state Division of Forestry.

Over 100 more personnel made up of five crews out of western Alaska will leave Wednesday to aid in the Fontenelle Fire in Wyoming.