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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Alaska wildfire poses unique challenges for Spokane firefighters called to assist

Two Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and aircrew from 1st Battalion, 297th Aviation perform Bambi bucket water drops over the Montana Creek Fire, July 4, 2019.

In the depths of Southcentral Alaska, a small tourist town called Talkeetna sits on the edge of the Susitna River, below Denali National Park, where the continent’s tallest peak towers over the mixed spruce and hardwood trees, the hilly terrain and the rivers.

On July 3, 13 miles south of Talkeetna, lightning struck the brush and started burning.

Officially named the Montana Creek Fire, the wildfire that broke out was considered relatively small in a hectic wildfire season in Alaska – one that has seen heat records shattered and that already has burned more than 2 million acres of frontier woods.

While it never grew more than 400 acres, the Montana Creek Fire threatened the historic town of Talkeetna and drew a large response from firefighters around the Northwest continental United States, including some from Eastern Washington.

Spokane-based firefighters Howard Johnson and Jeff Dimke were part of a team of 57 others who traveled to the wildfire in July to assist.

For Johnson, it was his first time fighting fire in the largest state in the union. As for Dimke, he’s lost count of the times he’s fought fires in Alaska, though he guesses he’s made the trip about 20 or 30 times.

When Johnson got the call to head north on July 3, this situation was urgent.

“Alaska was at preparedness level 5,” Johnson said. “Numerous fires were going on across the state. They didn’t know what fire they had to assign to us. They knew about fires they had, and they would probably need a team.”

Johnson packed his tent, sleeping bag, boots, Nomex fire suit and two to three weeks worth of clothes. He boarded a plane on July 5 to meet with his team in Fairbanks.

“As we came in, we could see the haze from different fires,” he said. “It was a little nerve-wracking.”

After two and a half days spent training, staging and waiting, their team was sent to the fire.

Dimke, a fire management officer at the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and Washington, and Johnson, a Spokane County Fire District 4 firefighter, departed in their rental cars.

A six-hour drive through the Denali National Forest wasn’t as spectacular as expected.

“It’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful forests, but we saw nothing because it was smoked in so bad,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t see more than a couple of hundred yards out into the road.”

For about a week, the fire had been spewing a large plume of milky brown smoke into the air while helicopters and airplanes dumped water in an effort to contain it.

And by the time Johnson and Dimke’s team arrived, that containment effort was mostly successful. Local firefighters, with the help of the National Guard, had knocked down most of the flames, but the fire threatened a re-emergence while edging closer to the George Parks Highway and Talkeetna.

“It was a direct threat to the town,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a planning section chief in the firefighter crew, began to deal with unique wildfire challenges that only Alaska offers.

“I remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking I overslept because it was light out,” he said. “But it was still 2 in the morning.”

The extra daylight kept firefighters working longer shifts, so mitigating firefighters’ exhaustion was important.

The Montana Creek Fire mostly burned on a glacial hill with a lot of soil and no permafrost layer, said Dimke, who worked as a fire management officer on the crew.

Dimke dug about 100 feet of line around the fire, but he mainly supervised a group of firefighters on the front line and communicated plans to them, he said.

The crew mostly worked on “mopping up” the fire and dousing hotspots left from the flames.

Dimke said if the fire would have crossed the highway it wouldn’t have stopped.

“No roads were paved for hundreds of miles,” he said. “It was a really good catch. It could have been a whole different show.”

In about two weeks, they had gotten comfortable enough to call it a success. Firefighters stopped the flames from reaching the highway and kept the burn area down to 367 acres.

The town was unharmed and no one was hurt.

The Denali Brewing Co. in Talkeetna hosted the firefighters for dinner after they had put out the fire. After the crew sat down, staff gave them their first round of drinks for free and told them the town had chipped in and bought them.

“I’ve never had something like that before,” Johnson said. “The people in the town were very nice and appreciative of our efforts.”

Neither of them expect to return to Alaska this season, but it’s not off the table in the future.

Dimke said fighting fires in Alaska is usually different because, with such a dispersed population, firefighters don’t spend resources to put out fires as quickly because not as many homes are threatened.

“I’ve been dumped north of Arctic Circle, stuck along a river for a week and couldn’t get out because of wind and smoke,” he said. “I’ve boated, canoed and flew into fires.”

But the Montana Creek Fire posed a unique challenge for Alaska because the town entire was in danger, he said.

“Alaska fires are never the same,” he said.