Two coal-seam fires merge to form rapidly-growing wildfire near Healy

An aerial photo taken Tuesday of the Louise Creek Coal Seam 2018 Fire about 5 miles northeast of Healy. (Teo Fusco/Alaska Division of Forestry)

State Forestry firefighters are working to contain a fast-growing wildfire near Healy that was ignited by two smoldering fires burning in coal deposits at the surface that merged together. Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry says the fire was spotted yesterday, when it had burned only about five acres.

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“Then last night, winds picked up down in that neck o’ the woods, and the fire got very active and grew to 600 to 1,000 acres at around 9, 10 o’clock at night,” Mowry said.

Mowry says the Louise Creek Coal Seam 2018 fire is now estimated at 1,800 acres. He says it’s burning in an area east of the Nenana River that had already burned over several years ago. At that time, crews brought in bulldozers that cut a fireline – or in this case a dozer line – around the area. But he says vegetation has regrown in the area, providing fuel for the wildfire.

“That dozer line is somewhat overgrown,” Mowry said. “So what we’re doing today is we’re getting some dozers down there on the scene and we’re going to rework that dozer line to make sure that fire stays east of that dozer line.”

Mowry says Forestry brought in personnel and equipment last night when winds whipped up the fire. He says more is now on the way today.

“We’ve got one crew on site, the UAF Type 2 crew, and a Type 2 initial attack crew, the Gannet Glacier crew, coming up from Palmer to tie-in with them. And then we also have multiple aircraft – two water-scooping aircraft and a helicopter equipped with a bucket that’ll be dropping water along that dozer line,” Mowry said.

Mowry says there’s no estimate yet on how much of the fire is contained and when it will be contained. He says there aren’t any homes or other developed property near the fire. So he says Forestry plans to keep the fire contained within the dozer line and let it burn out.

“We typically don’t go in and take action on these fires on the ground, because it’s dangerous,” Mowry said. “So typically it’s more monitoring from the air and taking action from the air and doing things like burnout operations along an existing firebreak.”

Mowry says coal-seam fires are fairly common in that area, where Usibelli Coal Mine operates. He says the fires present a hazard to firefighters, because they could be killed if they fall into a burning or smoldering coal-seam. And he says the smoke can be hazardous.