Alaska Division of Forestry ready to expand Rural Firefighter Program

by Alaska Fire PIOs

Native Alaska Firefighters cooling off. Photo by Mike McMillan/AK Division of Forestry

Alaska’s “emergency firefighter act” – House Bill 209 – was signed into law June 20, 2022, by Governor Mike Dunleavy, after receiving widespread support. The bill enables the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Fire Protection to train and employ wildland firefighters and project crews in rural areas.

Native Alaskan wildfire crews have historically been a vital part of village life and culture in Alaska, offering temporary employment to several hundred emergency firefighters (EFFs) throughout the summer months. But in recent years, limited opportunities for village fire crews and rural firefighters has been discouraging.

The purpose of the recent legislation is to alleviate many of the economic and logistical barriers to retaining rural firefighting crews throughout wildfire season – running from April to August. House Bill 209 empowers the Division of Forestry to utilize firefighters in non-emergency capacities – namely fuel reduction projects. Tree cutting, brush clearing, debris removal and pile burning helps crews learn valuable firefighting skills, building cohesion while earning a steady income.

“We want to keep people working in their communities,” said Orozco Andres, Helitak Operations Foreman at McGrath Forestry. “Our goal is to create reliable employment by investing in and building our workforce with well-trained, hard-working firefighters.” Andres predicts McGrath Forestry will train 20-30 new firefighters by year’s end – a number he hopes will double in 2023.

The challenges of recruiting new candidates, and training, certifying, managing, and retaining experienced firefighters is complicated by the logistics of transporting crews to and from remote Alaskan communities.

But Alaska State Foresters and Fire Managers are excited about the future. “It’s going to take time, it’s not going to happen all at once,” said Matsu-Area Fire Management Officer Phil Blydenburgh. “We’re looking to build our workforce in stages,” he said. Andres added “It’s a multi-step process that we’ve developed and are looking to expand. And we need more firefighters.”

For questions about upcoming employment opportunities for emergency firefighters living in rural areas and Alaska villages, contact Orozco Andres at (907) 524-3010.