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Firefighters stop Quinhagak blaze from threatening town & archaeological dig

High winds caused a small fire at the landfill in Quinhagak to quickly spread to the nearby tundra on June 25, threatening the community and coming within feet of an active archaeological dig.

In the end, volunteer firefighters and first responders from hundreds of miles away came together to avert a potential catastrophe.

It appears that the fire started from a burn bin at Quinhagak’s landfill. According to Quinhagak volunteer firefighter Henry Jones Jr., at some point on June 25, some embers were carried on the wind from a metal cage used to burn trash.

The embers ignited the nearby tundra and were propelled toward the community and a nearby archaeological site by southeast winds of more than 30 miles per hour.

“The ground fire spread towards Quinhagak a little bit slower than walking speed,” Jones Jr. said.

With the fire marching closer, Jones Jr. and other volunteer firefighters scrambled to find pumps and hoses. Hundreds of feet of hose had been destroyed fighting another tundra fire two years earlier, Jones Jr. said.

Without any equipment immediately available, Jones Jr. grabbed a 12-volt battery and bilge pump from his home, which he fitted with garden hoses borrowed from the local hardware store. Pumping water from a nearby pond to the edge of the fire, he found that the pressure was inadequate.

“Was like 4 to 5 feet average distance where we can spray,” Jones Jr. said.

Jones Jr. said that he quickly got on the phone and put the word out in the community of roughly 800 residents to gather as many pumps, hoses, and people as possible.

“We needed more manpower, that was the problem,” Jones Jr. said.

On the evening of June 25, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center estimated the size of the fire to be roughly 100 acres. It reported that the fire was burning less than a mile from one of the community’s fuel farms.

Almost immediately, four firefighters with the Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection were dispatched from McGrath. An air tanker from Fairbanks followed close behind. Following orders to evacuate the area, the tanker swooped in to drop its payload of bright red retardant along the edge of the blaze.

“[They] did a one scoop drop right in front of it,” Jones Jr. said.

With the fire held at bay, firefighters were then able to bring the blaze under control, attacking hotspots with the limited equipment available.

A short distance from the landfill at the Nunalleq archaeological site, the fire very nearly proved catastrophic. Lead archaeologist Rick Knecht said that it’s the closest call he can remember.

“This is the first time we've been out during an active fire, and it came within just maybe 100 feet of our canvas tent full of field gear,” Knecht said.

Researchers at the site on the edge of Kuskokwim Bay, the best preserved pre-contact Yup’ik settlement ever discovered, are racing against coastal erosion to recover artifacts dating back to the 16th century.

Knecht said that a combination of wind direction and the efforts of volunteers saved the day.

“We got very lucky, but we're kind of this little island in the middle of probably a couple square miles of charred tundra,” Knecht said.

Knecht said that a tundra fire roughly five years earlier did reach the dig site, but it was fortunately during the offseason.

“It would have destroyed all of our gear and field notes and so on,” Knecht said. “But luckily we had broken up camp by then, so it just burned the platform that our tent was on.”

With any fire, Knecht said that the threat of a longer term smoldering fire damaging cultural materials is real. But he said a lot more than the dig site was threatened on June 25.

“If the wind had just shifted just a tiny bit, just a few degrees, the village would have been in big trouble,” Knecht said.

With the situation under control on June 26, Knecht said that he and other researchers spent the day indoors, where they likely joined the rest of the community in greeting the foul weather that rolled in.

“And it's just now starting to rain and it looks like we're saved,” Knecht said.

Among dozens of active fires elsewhere on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the state said that firefighters were responding to just four as of June 27. The largest of these is the 6,300-acre South Fork George River fire burning just north of the upper Kuskokwim River community of Red Devil.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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