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Firefighters Scramble to Contain Wildfire Sparked by Smoldering Coal-seam Fires

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. Forestryspokesman Tim Mowry says the fire was spotted Tuesday, when it had burned only about 5 acres.

“Then (Tuesday) night,” he said, “winds picked up down in that neck o’ the woods, and the fire got very active and grew to 600 to a thousand acres at around 9, 10 o’clock at night.”

Mowry says the Louise Creek Coal Seam 2018 fire is now estimated at 1,900 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,” he said. “So what we’re doing 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 said Wednesday that Forestry had brought in personnel and equipment Tuesday night and that more was now on the way.

“We’ve got one crew on site, the UAF Type 2 crew, and a Type 2 initial attack crew, the Gannett Glacier crew, coming up from Palmer to tie-in with them,” he said. “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.”

Credit Alaska Division of Forestry
Louise Creek coal-seam fires have popped up in previous years, like this one in 2016.

Mowry says there’s zero containment of the fire as of Wednesday evening. And he says there’s no estimate yet on 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 do what it usually does when coal-seam fires occur – keep it 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,” he 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 hazardous.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.