Kwethluk Fire: 5th Observation Flight Predicts 9,693 acre fire running out of fuel and into natural barriers

by the Alaska Division of Forestry

Apr 24: Friday afternoon at 4:15pm, DOF’s aerial mapping specialist Matt Snyder took his fifth observation flight of the now 9,693 acre Kwethluk Fire (fire #012) burning in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Snyder, based at the DOF station in McGrath, has worked in rural Alaska as a wildland firefighter for over 10 years and has expertise in southwest Alaska.

During the time of the flight, winds were out of the east at 5-10 mph, temperature was 45F with 100% cloud cover, and the active perimeter was just 10% moving to the southwest. Snyder noted in his surveillance report: “Forward spread of the fire to the west has halted due to natural barriers. All fire activity is on the southwest flank with the fire backing into the wind and surrounded by natural barriers. The fire should run out of available fuels in the next 1-2 days.”

The fire has been burning the available surface fuels and stopping when it reaches any wet fuels located in the copious creeks and drainages as seen in the photos. By examining the terrain features in the vicinity of the Kwethluk Fire, fire specialists like Snyder can mostly predict where the fire will have available fuel to burn. At this time, the remaining active portion of the fire is isolated to the southeast portion of the fire and is heading toward some remaining snow located on Loom Mountain.

The predicted weather for the area is for a favorable wind switch from the west along with rain and snow showers yesterday evening and continuing through today. The next planned reconnaissance flight will be tomorrow Monday, April 25. The cause of the Kwethluk Fire is currently under investigation at this time. The fire is projected to halt approximately two miles from the nearest native allotment.

It is common to have wildfires at this time of year in Alaska. As our daylight lengthens, the snowpack recedes and exposes the tundra grasses, mosses and shrubs to the drying effects of the wind and the sun. These conditions, coupled with sparse precipitation, work to dry out the tundra plants and make them available as fuel for combustion. Western Alaskan wildfires burning at this time of year tend to be wind driven and fast moving but also short-lived. These fires cannot burn deeply below the surface due to the shallow frost layer and tend to readily extinguish themselves as they encounter drainages and sloughs, differing vegetation, existing areas of snow, or changes in weather.

The Kwethluk Fire is burning in a geographic area that is denoted in the “Alaska Interagency Fire Management Plan” as a “Limited Management Option” Fire. More commonly referred to as a “Limited” Fire. A Limited Fire is most often located far from population centers and valuable Alaskan infrastructure. A fire in this category usually only receives traditional suppression efforts if it continues to grow and becomes a potential threat to any life or property. However, wildfires in the Limited category are always aggressively monitored and mapped in proximity to existing values. These surveillance activities allow Alaskan wildland firefighting agencies to be better able to make timely and accurate decisions as the fire situation changes and requires an updated strategies.

However, even in the case of Limited Fires, these decisions whether to deliver firefighters to Alaskan wildfires are not entered into lightly. Strategies, tactics and decisions for every wildfire take into account many variables, from resource availability, values at risk, fuel conditions, current and forecasted weather, seasonality and above all; firefighter and public safety.

According to National Wildlife Refuge Fire Management Officer Jeff Bouschor, “the fact that the Kwethluk Fire is burning in a Limited Management Area is the main driver in contributing to the decision to refrain from taking any suppression actions. Other factors include the time of year, the current and expected weather conditions, the lack of continuous combustible fuels and potential risks to firefighting personnel and aircrew members. Finally, observations on the initial day of the Kwethluk Fire indicated that it was readily going out at every barrier to available fuel. We also feel very comfortable with our decision as we have confidence in our information collection and assessments by our Aerial Observer, Matthew Snyder. Matt is one of the best in the business and consistently demonstrates a growing expertise in the behavior and characteristics of the fires occurring in Southwest Alaska.”

Values at risk include native allotments one mile to the northeast, 2.3 miles to the southeast, 3.3 miles to the west, and the Kwethluk Fish Weir approximately 5 miles to the west southwest.

We will provide additional updates as they become available. Watch the April 18th narrated flyover video of this wildfire on DOF’s YouTube Channel:

As a reminder, burn permits are required from April 1 through August 31. You can pick up a burn permit online at https://dnr.alaska.gov/burn or pick them up at your local forestry office and at many local fire departments.

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