Nearly a million acres have burned in southwest Alaska this year. 85 fires are still ablaze in the region. The middle Kuskokwim base of Aniak is the nerve center for a fleet of helicopters and other aircraft, shuttling supplies and crews working to stop fires before they reach communities and cabins. As the season progresses, teams are settling into Aniak for the summer.
At the Aniak Airport, pallets are stacked high with worn-down pulaskis, the wildland firefighter’s combination axe and digging tool ready to be flown out and refurbished. Helicopters buzz overhead to resupply crews working at one of the massive wildfires in the Southwest Alaska region. In a tent, walls are plastered with maps and tables covered with walkie talkies. That’s where Incident Commander Keith Dunn oversees the middle Kuksokwim operation.
“Stuff’s burning where it shouldn’t be burning because of the dry conditions. This is an above average season,” said Dunn.
He’s coordinating efforts for 150,000 acres that have burned, including the North Aniak, Whitefish Lake, Mission Creek, and Ophir Creek fires that started with lightening storms last month. He says fire managers haven’t seen a season like this in a decade. 300 fires are still burning, across the state. It comes on the heels of a dry and unseasonably warm winter during which the Kuskokwim River partially broke up.
On this day, six crews are based out of Aniak, totaling more than 100 firefighters. They stop briefly to eat and sleep at the school while they pass through. In the field, they camp at their wilderness sites.
The local prep work has been done: Aniak has pumps and a firebreak in place, along with communities like Lower and Upper Kalskag, Chuathbaluk and Crooked Creek. Dunn says they have the people now to attack the western side of the Aniak fire.
“We’re still hitting that hard trying to tuck that in. Our main threat to the west is all the structures along the river and Kalskag, we’re really focusing on that, making sure we’re getting it tucked in on that end,” said Dunn.
They don’t want fires to reignite and threaten villages. When the state lit up with hundreds of wildfires, managers were forced to triage protection of the vast region. They couldn’t actually fight the fires in remote spots unless they directly threatened communities. That changed once they got a break from dry weather.
“I see us going for a little while longer, the moisture definitely has helped us here. We have a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of hot stuff out there with a lot of real estate to cover. We’re going to keep setting priorities and bumping around with our crews,” said Dunn.
From its pad in the fireweed, a helicopter dangling a 100-foot cable prepares to ferry a load back from the Whitefish Lake fire. Air support supervisor Terry Anderson has been in the business for decades.
“The helicopter is going to lift up and go to a fire with that long line attached to the belly of the ship. We have sling loads: cargo nets full of backhaul. That’s equipment that’s already been used, garbage, old hoses they didn’t use,” said Anderson.
The helicopter base is close to the stacks of hoses, pumps, gas cans, and MRE meals that stand at the ready.
“We can only fight fires if we can get firefighters into them by helicopters, so we do that. Then we support them with fixed wing, prop planes like the Caravans,” said Anderson.
The choppers also drop water on fires. The clock’s always running. On-site maintenance teams work overnight to keep the helicopters at top performance.
The exact damage toll of the fires is still being determined. One family lost a fish camp and their traditional grave site across the river. Six miles below Aniak at Crow Village, David Phillips recalled coming back from a camping trip and getting pushed back from his home by the overpowering smoke.
“It was just smokey and close to the house. It was kind of scary. The thought of losing my house was scary, we didn’t know what was going to happen there,” said Phillips.
The Native Village of Napaimute loaded a pump and hose on boat, along with some young help to cut a fire break and save the house. The fire got within 100 yards. In June, the region scrambled to send out two planeloads of people with respiratory problems, the very young and old to stay out of the thick smoke.
Bob Colliver has been through emergencies over the years. He’s lived in Aniak since 1960 and was the first mayor.
“Everyone who’s anybody knows that if it’s an emergency, they have to tighten their belts, hook up their brain and get with it. And they do it. There’s something inbuilt in a human being such that they automatically do the right thing in a real emergency,” said Colliver.
While the Kuskokwim Rriver and Aniak Slough protect two sides of the community, Mayor Bill Wilson knows that fire can come from any direction.
“As a pilot, I’ve noticed many, lots of times we come in and there’s a strong south wind. It could happen, it’s a very possible thing to see the very same thing we saw across the river come in our back door. So we want to be prepared for that,” said Wilson.
After 2015’s big scare, Aniak doesn’t want to be caught off guard with the next big fire. There’s now a five-foot buffer protecting the town. Aniak is partnering with fire officials to mark off and make a much bigger line. They plan to clear a thirty-foot buffer and then thin out another 30 feet. That will buy them precious time for the next time wildfires sweep through the Kuskokwim.