By Patricia Liles
Mining News editor 

Pogo helicopter pilot rescues neighboring geologists from ridge-top camp


Last updated 7/11/2004 at Noon

Two Fairbanks-based exploration geologists trapped in a remote camp threatened by a huge wild-lands fire burning out of control in Alaska's Interior were rescued by a helicopter pilot dispatched from the Pogo construction camp.

Shortly after their air extraction, the fire burned through the ridge-top camp, destroying eight camp structures and some equipment, Sam Dashevsky, head of Northern Associates Inc., told Mining News on July 8.

His Fairbanks-based geological consulting firm was working out of the camp, first set up and used a year ago, completing prospecting and core drilling for client AngloGold (U.S.A.) Exploration.

"We had a pretty tense day trying to evacuate them from when we received the first call at 3:15 a.m., when the fire was already at the ridge," Dashevsky said. "It was some fairly heroic flights by a local pilot."

State forestry aircraft was grounded and the helicopter on call for Northern Associates' field work couldn't reach the men. A helicopter pilot working at the Pogo camp rescued the men, according to Karl Hanneman, Pogo's manager of public and environmental affairs and special projects.

The two men were trapped by the Camp Creek fire, which had been rapidly advancing since its start on June 23 towards the Pogo mine construction camp in the upper Goodpaster River valley. After reaching the river and Pogo's airstrip, the fire reversed direction and traveled in five hours the six miles from Pogo to the Northern Associates camp above treeline, Dashevsky said.

Pogo shuts down again

Construction at the Pogo gold project shut down again, the second time this season. Rather than a delay from an environmental permit appeal, the environment itself - a wild-lands fire raging out of control - caused evacuation of 165 construction workers from the remote gold mine project in Interior Alaska's Goodpaster River valley.

The Camp Creek fire burned across the rolling hills, all the way down to the river's edge opposite of the construction camp, according to Pogo's Hanneman.

"We wetted the perimeter and in spots where flames and embers jumped the river, we quickly put them out," he said in a telephone interview from the construction site on July 7. "We knew it was getting close, but it was also very smoky."

Pogo crews saw evidence of the Camp Creek fire shortly after it started on June 23, Hanneman said. "It moved from six miles away to being right in the vicinity, moving in the direction of the river."

Most of Pogo's workers were evacuated June 26, after the job site was demobilized. Remaining on-site at Pogo, about 40 miles northeast of Delta Junction, were 15 employees, who were joined by 40 firefighters.

Twenty construction workers stayed at a road construction camp, about 25 miles west of Pogo on the all-season access road being built, and they were joined by 56 firefighters, Hanneman said.

Although Pogo construction workers have been returning to the job since July 5 after a substantial rainfall helped knock the fire down, firefighters have remained on site, mopping up smoldering vegetation before it reignites.

Exploration camp burns

The exploration camp set up by Northern Associates lost six "Boonie barn" tents, two wall tents, a generator and other equipment leased from Taiga Ventures.

Drilling core was not lost, nor was the firm's office damaged, Dashevsky said. "We're rolling with the punches," he said. "We'll be drilling by this time next week. The exploration project is moving ahead."

Mike Tolbert, owner of Fairbanks-based Taiga Ventures, said his company had been preparing to ship additional tents and equipment out to the camp to accommodate more workers, just prior to the fire.

"When anything is in the path of these fires, there's not much anyone can do," he said. "They evacuated the crew the evening before (the fire), so it was out of their control."

Smoky conditions made it difficult for the crew to leave, even by helicopter. "They had to go when they had to go," Tolbert said.

"So you move on and take your licks."

The state mining claims in the ER property were staked by Rimfire Minerals and optioned to AngloGold (U.S.A.) Exploration, the operator of the exploration project.

Pogo work resumes

Fire managers estimate the Camp Creek fire has burned 115,505 acres in the Interior, according to July 7 reports. Three fire fighting crews with 195 workers on Camp Creek reported the fire zero percent contained with no lost structures.

More than 1.9 million acres of land in Alaska has been burned this summer, and more than 1,800 firefighters are in state.

With improving conditions in the Goodpaster valley, construction work has resumed at Pogo. Crews had been preparing to pour the first concrete for the mill foundation on July 1, but that schedule has slipped, Hanneman said. Road crews are also back on the job, and the 49-mile road being built is passable again.

Fortunately for the mine and for firefighters, vehicles could travel the road during the first days of the fire. Some of the Pogo workers left the construction site by driving out the road, while many of the firefighters and their equipment drove in on the road, Hanneman said.

"We decided to send people out before the fire burned out the road," he said. "We didn't want people stranded at the end of the road."

Blackened terrain now borders about 15 miles of the road, which is closed to the public. Industrial users must obtain permits from Teck-Pogo for special use of the road, although that paperwork wasn't necessary for the firefighters, Hanneman said. "We always contemplated that state scientific research and fire support would use the road."


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