Volunteers remain hopeful, as Levelock Fire reaches 5% containment

Smoke pours from fire outside the village of Levelock, Aug. 21, 2019. (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

Smoke is pouring from lines of fire surrounding Levelock. The air is hazy, and the tundra is black. But after three days of fighting the blaze on the edge of their village, residents are finally starting to see progress. As of this morning, the fire was 5% contained.

Sally Reed is coordinating supplies and local volunteers, and she said they saw the most improvement Wednesday.

“We’re getting a lot more trees cut down by the houses,” she explained. “And then half the crew is going to get ready to come up towards the airport and work on this end. And then there’s maybe about four people going to be working down on the lower end with water bags and shovels.” 

People from New Stuyahok, Koliganek and Iliamna have joined Levelock residents to help stem the blaze, sleeping in the village rec hall and the school.

“Everybody seems to be in good spirits so far. And you know, holding up and making each other laugh, and just trying to have fun, I guess, with this situation,” Reed said.

The Alaska Fire Service sent two more crews of emergency firefighters – from Hooper Bay and Chevak – to assist in suppressing the fire. Albert Simon is a crew boss, and on Wednesday afternoon, he and his team of 20 firefighters were waiting to be debriefed.

“If we have to do a burning operation, we’re going to hit that first, and then we’re going to hit the structure protection to try to make sure the fire doesn’t turn around and try to get to that,” he said. 

Simon is referring to a firefighting technique where responders set a controlled fire to get rid of materials like dry brush and trees that could feed the blaze.

As he’s talking, a small plane arrives, loaded with supplies. Janice Chukwak drives up to meet it on an ATV. She flew to King Salmon on Monday with other evacuees. Now, she’s running supplies to those fighting the fire. 

“We have hope,” she said. “All these people are coming in, from the volunteers from all over the place. The donations have been amazing. And these guys from the Bethel area, there’s 40 of them coming in. So we really are excited. We’re going to have a village to call home.”

Chukwak is excited to see the outpouring of help and support from across the region. Because having a fire that close to home is terrifying. 

“I flew in this morning, and I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “And then when I saw the – how close it was… you know, we’re so thankful that we didn’t lose any buildings.”

The Alaska Fire Service reports that attempts to conduct burn operations Wednesday evening were only partly effective due to rain and cloud cover. Reed, the coordinator, said this morning that fires around the airport and houses had been contained. Crews now plan to secure control lines and burn out any remaining fuels. The success of those efforts will depend on the weather.