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Crews see progress as Tyonek fire moves west

Posted: May 19, 2014 - 6:48pm  |  Updated: May 20, 2014 - 12:21pm
Emergency crews stage at the end of the runway in Tyonek Monday afternoon. The blaze grew to 80 acres by Monday evening.    Photo courtesy Pam Howard
Photo courtesy Pam Howard
Emergency crews stage at the end of the runway in Tyonek Monday afternoon. The blaze grew to 80 acres by Monday evening.

Update: 12:20 p.m.

The wildfire in Tyonek spread to 350 acres as of Tuesday morning but fire crews made progress in building a fire line on the flank close to the village as the wind-driven fire has moved west away from the threatened subdivision, according to the the Alaska Wildland Fire Information.

Sarah Saarloos, information officer with the Mat-Su Division of Forestry, said as of Tuesday morning no structures have been lost and a new crew from Palmer has been sent back out to suppress the fire.

A total of 67 personnel were dispatched to handle the Tyonek fire Monday, which was first reported as a 5-acre wildfire north of the Tyonek Airport at about 2:45 p.m. Air attack from two tankers dropped eight loads of retardant and eight smokejumpers were deployed Monday, along with the Pioneer Peak and Midnight Sun Hotshot crews on the ground. Ten Nikiski firefighters and eight Beluga volunteer firefighters worked overnight on the ground to slow the fire down.

Most of the villagers had evacuated to their fishing camps and another 20 people have moved to the Timber Camp Lodge, said Debra Call, Director of Corporate Administration for the Tyonek Native Corporation.

In the Kenai area ConocoPhillips has offered a helicopter to provide a food transfer to Tyonek for the firefighters, Call said. Villagers have also provided coffee, Gatorade and energy bars to the crews.

“When the wind picks up the ambers transfer to other sport and really exacerbates the situation,” she said. “Now that the fire has moved more westward, the subdivision is not immediately affected."

Nikiski Fire Chief James Baisden said 10 of his firefighters stayed overnight and five more have been dispatched to Tyonek and will concentrate their efforts in structure protection and will work close to the village spraying down hot spots, he said.

Nikiski’s fire protection area expands to Tyonek, a 150 resident village across the Cook Inlet. The Beluga Volunteer firefighters have a Nikiski fire engine and tanker and his crew trains with them weekly, he said. 

Saarloos said the Tyonek fire has been classified as a type-3 organizational wildfire. While the Funny River fire is larger in size and classified as a type-2, crews have to assess how long the fire will keep burning and if it poses a continuous risk.

Updated at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday A fire near Tyonek had grown to 350 acres by late Monday evening according to The Alaska Department of Natural Resources - Division of Forestry Facebook page. Fire crews have made "good progress" on fire line to protect the village and air operations should begin again Tuesday, according to the page. ###

This story was updated with new information at 8:55 p.m. Monday.

A 5-acre wildfire near the Village of Tyonek grew to 80 acres by 7:15 p.m. Monday.

Just after 8:30 p.m., Sam Harrel, information officer with the Division of Forestry, said the retardant crews have been applying is working to slow the fire down.  

The blaze, fueled by high winds, was moving toward the village of Tyonek, which is located on the west side of Cook Inlet. Multiple fire agencies on scene are battling the blaze.

Andy Alexandrou, public information officer with the Division of Forestry, Kenai office, said the fire could potentially reach the village, but some natural breaks and sloughs between the fire and the village help to slow the fire down.

Harrel said smoke jumpers and two retardant tankers are working the fire, which is being handled by the Division of Forestry's Mat-Su personnel. The Midnight Sun Hotshot Crew is also on scene and the Pioneer Peak Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Palmer was en route at 7 p.m., Harrel said.

Ten Nikiski firefighters and eight firefighters from the Beluga volunteer department, along with residents of the village are working on the ground with a bulldozer and two fire engines, according to an email from Nikiksi Fire Chief James Baisden.

Harrel said the fire started near the north end of the Tyonek Airport runway with the call reported at about 2:45 p.m. Wind gusts of 25 mph caused the fire to spread and spot over the Chutina River. The blaze was within about 5 miles of the 150-person village when it began. 

Harrel said the tankers have dropped retardant flames in front of the fire to encourage the fire not to spread. 

“The winds are strong and affect the direction of the fire,” Harrel said. “The winds are blowing out and the village is being threatened.”

Students from the school in Tyonek were evacuated before school was released around 3 p.m., said Pam Howard, a school nurse who flew to the Kenai Municipal Airport from Tyonek.

She said the power went out and shortly after fire crews advised the school to evacuate.

“This afternoon we go word there was a fire across the river by the airport,” she said. “It was close to the time I was going to fly back so I was concerned about the smoke; whether I would be able to leave. I was concerned about the high winds today.”

Howard, who said school nurses are assigned only seven days a semester in Tyonek, said this was her fourth trip this year. She said the Tyonek School had scheduled their graduation for Monday night but she expected it to be cancelled. She said teachers and able-bodied students were asked to help fight the fire.

“The fire is getting close to the subdivision and residents were very concerned and hoping the planes would arrive with water,” she said. “Residents are concerned about some villagers who cannot walk (well)."

Baisden reminds locals the burn suspension in effect, and no open burning is allowed.

The Clarion will have more information as the story develops.

Reach Dan Balmer at daniel.balmer@peninsulaclarion.com


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