A supply camp that supported operations for the controversial Pebble Mine prospect in Southwest Alaska was destroyed by a wildfire earlier this month.
The camp suffered a “near total loss” during the Fourth of July weekend, said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership.
The fire razed several items such as a quonset-like facility that stored tools, safety equipment and other gear, shack-like structures that supported crews and operations, he said.
“It’s been a strange summer,” Heatwole said. “This is the driest and the hottest I’ve ever seen it there.”
Only long stacks of metal drill pipe survived the fire, Heatwole said. It’s too early to know the financial cost of the damage, he said, but he doesn’t think it will affect future Pebble operations. No one was hurt, he said.
The Pebble copper and gold prospect is located about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage in a remote area, near headwaters that support the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. The wildfire is one of several fires in the region this summer and is known as the Upper Talarik fire.
The supply camp was used to support exploration and environmental studies in years past, Heatwole said. But activities have slowed at the deposit, which is currently awaiting decisions from two federal agencies about whether a mine can be built.
This summer, the camp supported a small maintenance and reclamation program that includes closing off holes from drilling in previous years, Heatwole said. He said the crew had recently finished its work and left the site before the blaze reached the camp.
Pebble is now taking steps to assess the damage and to clean up debris, Heatwole said.
“We also want to convey our appreciation to the interagency fire team for all of their efforts in battling this and other fires across the area,” Heatwole said.
The Upper Talarik fire has burned about 9,000 acres, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.
It’s part of an unprecedented wildfire season in Alaska that saw 1 million acres burned in the state by mid-June, several days earlier than in previous years, said Kale Casey, a spokesman with the Alaska Incident Management team working on the Upper Talarik and other fires in the region.
Casey said the Upper Talarik fire was one of several blazes sparked by lightning strikes in the region in early to mid-June, following a warm, dry period. It’s not actively growing, and it’s relatively small compared to other fires in the area, he said.
Firefighters had conducted a defensive burn to protect the Pebble supply camp from the fire, he said. But a strong wind event with the potential to carry embers miles through the air began at the end of June, preventing helicopter overflights. A flight on July 3 revealed the damage at the camp, he said.
The Pebble project, opposed by conservation groups and fishermen who say it threatens Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery, faces uncertainty at the federal permitting level.
Company officials and mine supporters have said the mine can safely be built and would provide valuable minerals and jobs.
But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2020, during the Trump administration, declined to approve a permit for the project. Pebble is appealing the decision.
The Environmental Protection Agency in May, under the Biden administration, proposed an effort to block the mine. It’s taking public comment on the issue. The agency’s proposal would prevent waterbodies such as Upper Talarik Creek, the fire’s namesake, from being used as disposal sites for dredged or fill material that would result from mining activity.