Rising humidity has allowed firefighters battling the Mystery Hills fire east of Sterling to change tactics.
"Because of the weather, we're putting crews on the fire directly," said Mindy Sherrieb, fire information officer for the ORCA incident management team, hired by the Alaska Division of Forestry to manage the fire. "We're helicoptering people in. All their gear is going with them. They'll be spiked up there for at least three days."
Starting from a helicopter landing site cleared Sunday near the south-southwest edge of the fire, crews are breaking up fuels and using pumps and hoses to wet down hot spots around the perimeter of the fire. The water comes from small streams and ponds in the fire area.
Incident managers have no estimate yet of how long it will take to contain the fire, Sherrieb said Monday. However, it appears from Global Positioning System readings that the fire may be less than the 1,300 acres estimated over the weekend.
Firefighters blame lightning strikes Thursday for starting the Mystery Hills fire, about two miles north of Upper Jean Lake near Mile 62 Sterling Highway, and the Thurman fire, a 15-acre fire now smoldering in the tundra near a mountain top about two miles southeast of the confluence of Thurman Creek and the Chickaloon River. Firefighters are monitoring the Thurman fire, but not actively fighting it.
Burning in beetle-killed spruce, the Mystery Hills fire was by far the faster moving of the two. It grew to an estimated 300 acres Thursday evening and 1,300 acres Friday, when it threatened to run at the Sterling Highway about two and a half miles to the south. However, tanker planes dropping fire retardants stalled its southward progress. Though the fire burned northwest and northeast over the weekend, it grew little.
The Division of Forestry flew in the ORCA incident management team, which includes Oregon and California firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Forestry and a rural fire district. Managers have called in roughly 300 firefighters, including 11 elite Hotshot crews and 16 emergency fire fighting crews. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has been helping with logistics, Sherrieb said.
Initially, firefighters decided against attacking the fire directly, because there were no safe areas to which they could escape if the fire ran toward them.
Instead, they cleared a fire line from the gravel pit at Mile 63 Sterling Highway to the 2,857-foot peak just west of the saddle near the top of the Skyline Trail. If the wind blows from the north, that will help them stop the fire before it reaches the Sterling Highway and the power line beside it.
Crews also have cleared a fire line along Mystery Creek Road, just west of the fire. They had contemplated a back burn to clear the area from Mystery Creek Road to the wildfire, creating a broad firebreak to protect Sterling. However, cooler weather and rising humidity made it possible instead to attack the fire directly, Sherrieb said.
On Sunday, two smoke jumpers parachuted into the burned area and cleared the helicopter landing site. Meanwhile, an overflight located areas burned completely enough to provide safe zones to which firefighters could escape if necessary.
On Monday, a helicopter began ferrying firefighters from the gravel pit to the fire. Three crews were at the fire by mid-day, and managers hoped to ferry two more in by evening. Sherrieb said firefighters were checking a seismic trail that also could provide access to the fire.
The Skyline Trail, roughly two and a half miles east of the fire, will remain closed to hikers until the fire is controlled, she said.
"Especially if there are north to northwest winds, you don't want people on that trail," she said.
Due to the number of fire vehicles operating in the area the speed limit between Mile 60 and Mile 65 Sterling Highway has been reduced to 35 miles per hour. The air space above the fire has been closed to keep private planes clear of helicopters and tanker planes fighting the fire.
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