MINING NEWS: Wildlands fires plague miners, prospectors
Fires smoldering after burning through placer mine and hard rock prospecting sites, area declared disaster area
Mining News Editor
Heavy rains in late July and early August have dampened the number of wildlands fires that burned through Interior and the eastern part of Alaska, adversely affecting placer miners and metals prospectors attempting to complete field work this summer.
Large fires in the eastern Interior, covering the Fortymile mining district, continue to smolder and creep, according to the Aug. 2 report from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, which is monitoring about 100 active fires in the state. So far, 520 fires in Alaska have burned more than 4.4 million acres of land.
The Taylor Complex fire encompasses four named burning areas, including the Chicken Complex. Total acreage burned is 842,402 acres, and the cost to fight those fires is more than $6 million, the report said.
“Fire managers expect that hotspots will remain within the interior of the fires’ perimeters until sustained precipitation is received over several days. Smoke will also continue to be visible,” the report said.
The fires are dramatically impacting the Fortymile mining district, a historically significant gold producing area spread out along drainages of the Fortymile River, just west of the Alaska-Yukon border, south of the community of Eagle and north of Tok.
State records show 46 active placer mining operations in the area this year, according to Brent Martellaro, geologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Land, Mining and Water Alaska. Roughly one-third of those are permits for suction dredging on the Fortymile River, he said.
“The impact on a lot of placer miners has undoubtedly been no access, because the (Taylor Highway) road has been closed on and off,” he said.
Assessment work still due
He’s received two inquiries, asking whether state law allows for an exception to the annual $100 per claim assessment work due for state mining claims, if a prospector or miner is not able to access the property. Existing law does not allow an exception, Martellaro told those inquiring, and the actual labor can be replaced with a monetary payment. Decisions can be appealed to higher levels of state government, he added.
Gold mine evacuated
A rapid advance in late June of the Boundary fire, burning northeast of Fairbanks, caused gold production to shut down at the Fort Knox Gold mine, on June 30, after fire managers issued an evacuation order for that area. Limited gold production resumed the next day and resumed at its full rate on July 3, said John Wild, general manager of Alaska’s largest gold mine.
According to Fort Knox spokeswoman Lorna Shaw, the mine’s lost gold production was valued at $400,000, although the total cash loss to the operation was $250,000. The mine’s reduced usage of products consumed, such as electricity, fuel and reagents, made up the difference.
Regional exploration by Kinross Gold, the parent company for Fort Knox, has slowed this summer, also due to the fires. No equipment or materials have been damaged by fire, Shaw said. “We did, however, lose five crew days, 10 core drill shifts on the Fort Knox Pit (drilling) program and five RC (reverse circulation) drill days at True North. The losses were due to access restrictions and smoke conditions.”
The Boundary fire threatened, but reportedly did not cross the ridge north of Fairbanks Creek, which drains the hills just north and east of Fort Knox. A shuttered historical stamp mill called the Hi Yu has been spared, as has an inactive gold dredge near the confluence of Fish and Fairbanks creeks, Martellaro said.
Other Fairbanks Creek area placer mine operations have reportedly resumed, he said. Unknown is whether the fire that burned through the Kokomo Creek drainage damaged a placer operation there.
Prospecting work hampered
The Boundary fire also limited the field season for Fairbanks-based Avalon Development, attempting to complete work for clients Freegold Ventures and Meridian Gold on the Golden Summit project, on the north side of Cleary Summit, about five miles from Fort Knox. “We were lucky — we lost only about 14 man-days, all due to the Boundary fire near Cleary Summit,” said Curt Freeman, a consulting geologist and owner of Avalon. “We have been back to work full time since last weekend (July 24-25).”
While the fire may be burning back vegetation, exposing rock outcrop in some areas, it makes for difficult field conditions this year, he said. “The soot and deadfalls caused by the fire make working conditions miserable for people and very tough on trucks and four-wheelers due to soot and carbon trash getting in and clogging air intakes.”
According to the Aug. 2 interagency report, the Boundary Fire burned more than 500,000 acres, including 15 structures. It was 35 percent contained, with 384 personnel assigned to mopping up hot spots, rehabilitating dozer lines, patrolling and monitoring fire activity.
Fire threatens Pogo, burns exploration camp
Another large fire, called Camp Creek, started June 23 and advanced rapidly towards the Pogo construction site in the upper Goodpaster River valley, about 40 miles northeast of Delta Junction. Construction crews were mostly evacuated, although a handful remained on site. They helped firefighters turn the fire back at the river, making sure no embers caught on the Pogo side, according to Karl Hanneman, Teck-Pogo’s manager of public and environmental affairs and special projects.
That fire turned and headed west, threatening and eventually burning through a remote hilltop camp being used by geologists working for AngloGold (U.S.A.) Exploration. A Pogo-based helicopter pilot evacuated two geologists from the camp, prior to the fire burning through it.
“We had two guys on site as watchmen with constant radio communication and they were evaced by chopper as the smoke got bad, day before the camp burned,” said Jeff Pontius, North American exploration manager for AngloGold, in an email a week after the fire. “It looks like the tents burned via creep through the tundra or ash fall that following day.”
He said that the helicopter being used by AngloGold and its geological consultant, Northern Associates, was at the Pogo mine for the evacuation, although “Teck’s chopper actually got them which we appreciate.”
The camp, which was set up and used the prior year, was not in use at the time, as drilling was not scheduled to begin until the following week, Pontius said. Six “Boonie barn” tents, two wall tents and other camp equipment, a generator, were lost in the fire.
“We were shut down in the Pogo area for about five days due to smoke and flight restrictions,” Pontius said in early July. “The damage will be repaired this week and we will begin the drilling program about a week late of plan so only minor impact to the program.”
According to the interagency fire report, the Camp Creek fire burned 150,529 acres, including three structures, and is 100 percent contained.
Interior fires declared economic disaster
The U.S. Small Business Administration declared Alaska’s Interior a disaster area, due to the ongoing fires, according to a July 23 release. SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans are available to small businesses in the affected areas. Businesses may request up to $1.5 million in loans to assist in paying fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable, and other obligations they cannot meet due to the economic impact caused by the fires.
State officials are working with the federal agency to set up offices in Fairbanks and in Tok, to meet with affected people applying for the assistance.
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