by Alaska Division of Forestry
Three Alaska Division of Forestry managed Type 2 Emergency Firefighting (EFF) crews from rural Alaska mobilized to Colorado today, Aug. 28 to help with the busy fire season. These crews are mostly made up with firefighters from remote communities in Southwest and Eastern Interior Alaska. The three crews are:
Chevak Crew with firefighters from Chevak and Kalskag
Hooper Bay Crew with firefighters from Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay
Upper Tanana #2 Crew with firefighters from Tok, Tancross, Tetlin, Mentasta Lake and Northway.
The Hooper Bay Crew is slated to join the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team (AIIMT) on the Grizzly Creek Fire while the other two crews are going to the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins.
The crews were flown or bussed into Anchorage on Thursday. For the Chevak and Hooper Bay crews, the journey included flying more than 500 miles to Anchorage. Firefighters on the Upper Tanana #2 Crew traveled approximately 318 miles by bus. By the time they reach Colorado, the crews will have traveled at least 2,700 miles.
The three crews that departed Alaska on Friday totaled 60 firefighters. They join 10 other Alaska firefighting hand crews already working in the Lower 48. In addition, the AIIMT, which is one of 16 Type 1 national management teams that provide an organized and highly skilled response to emergency incidents, is managing the Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. In total, approximately 450 Alaska firefighting personnel from a variety of local, state and federal agencies are filling positions such as dispatchers, heavy equipment managers, engine bosses and division supervisors.
Alaska emergency firefighters are hired on an as-needed basis to supplement regular firefighting personnel in times of need. The Alaska Division of Forestry (DOF) and the BLM Alaska Fire Service manage separate EFF programs in communities in their respective protection areas in Alaska. An EFF crew is trained to national Type 2 standards and is available in Alaska and nationally for deployment to fires or other disasters. They have mobilized numerous times in the past for wildland fires and other emergencies such as floods and the Challenger space shuttle explosion. These crews most recently mobilized to help on wildfires in Alaska in 2019 and the Lower 48 in 2018.
These three crews consist of 19 firefighters each plus an experienced DOF employee as a crew representative, or CREP. This person is assigned to look after the crew’s best interests during their Lower 48 assignment. Otherwise, a crew consists of at least:
•One qualified crew boss who is an experienced EFF that leads the crew, looks after members’ well-being and makes sure the crew accomplishes assigned tasks.
•Three fully qualified squad bosses
•Up to four sawyers who serve as chainsaw operators.
•Nine to 15 crew members that may include a variety of trainees.
Additionally, DOF employees fill out other supportive positions such as an interagency resource representative (IARR) and a crew administrative representatives (CARR) that travel with the crews. These three individuals will facilitate the interaction with fire managers and dispatch centers in all matters pertaining to the crews including timekeeping and in an event where someone gets hurt or falls ill.
Many of these firefighters come from families that have been EFF for generations. The income derived from this employment has been significant in many of the communities where the EFF live. There are four Alaska Type 2 EFF crews currently listed with the Alaska Interagency Coordination (AICC) as available for assignment. The fourth is from the Fairbanks area and anticipates mobilizing in the near future.
The firefighters spent the night at a mobilization center set up at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus that was unusually vacant due to the pandemic. Before leaving Anchorage, firefighters were equipped with things like fire-resistant clothing called Nomex, fire shelters and fire packs for a 14-day assignment. In addition to the normal personal protective equipment (PPE) issued for working on a fireline, each individual was given a three-day supply of COVID-19 PPE that includes masks and hand sanitizer. They’ll get their hand tools and chain saws after they arrive in Colorado.
Firefighters from Alaska travel to the Lower 48 almost every year to help other agencies battle wildfires after the Alaska fire season winds down, usually in mid- to late-July. Last year was the exception when more than 5,000 people mobilized from the Lower 48 to help with Alaska’s wildfires that started in May and lasted until the end of September. This year, Alaskans get to return the favor and help the Rocky Mountain region that is experiencing a busy fire season.
Meanwhile, Alaska experienced a low fire season with only about 181,120 acres burned statewide. In a typical fire season, about 650,000 acres burn in Alaska. The record is 6.5 million acres burned across Alaska in 2004.
Alaska crews are typically mobilized to the Lower 48 in groups of four using large transport aircraft arranged through the National Incident Coordination Center (NICC). However, this year only three crews are being transported at a time by the chartered jet to give passengers adequate personal spacing. Crews also received a COVID-19 safety briefing in Alaska before making the trip south. They will also adhere to local, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines while traveling, while assigned to a fire and upon the return to Alaska.