How Do They Do It? A Closer Look at Fighting Wildfires in Alaska

by AK Fire Info

Smokejumpers “Tundra Trench” In a Dry Fire Area. Photo credit: Alaska Wildland Fire Information

Fighting wildfires is challenging. But fighting wildfires in Alaska can be downright strange at times. Experience, imagination, attitude and teamwork can mean the difference between suffering and thriving on a fire assignment in Alaska.

For example, all of those readily available water sources near a fire are perfect for setting up pumps and hose lays — but not so perfect when they come between firefighters trying to access the firelines with heavy gear.

Lookouts may not be useful in flat areas with dense woods. Communications with dispatch are usually best done by satellite phones, or by using a “Dow” or “Larson” Antenna — a 25-footflexible cord attached to the top of a tall but climbable tree, the other end connected to a hand-held radio.

The Alaskan sky stays bright until two a.m. on many summer nights— ideal for working late and gaining ground on a fire. But when firefighters have only a few hours to sleep, that same night sky can feel like daytime to tired crews, and much-needed sleep can be elusive.

Unlike the lower 48 states where most fires are human-caused, lightning is the way most wildfires start in Alaska. When a new fire is plotted in an area designated for fire protection, the first problem is getting firefighters and hundreds of pounds of gear to the fireline. These logistical problems are routinely solved with airplanes, helicopters, boats, and common sense.

Smokejumpers prefer using their parachutes, but sometimes their jumpship lands at airstrips, and they shuttle to firelines by helicopter or boat — whatever works best.

Hotshot crews working in Alaska are accustomed to traveling to the fireline using the fastest, safest means possible, and ready to configure their gear accordingly.

Helitak crews are heavily utilized for initial attack (IA) in areas near cities, towns and villages, but more remote fires can be out of reach to logistically support or suppress in time.

Air support can often make the difference between catching a small fire or not. Water-scooping Fire Bosses and CL-415s make quick load and returns when water sources are near. Air tankers have great success too — if their turnaround times are not too long from tanker base.

Fuel models in Alaska are especially unique. Hardwoods stands of Aspen and Birch Trees are commonly utilized as natural barriers to active fires, and also considered safer places than vast expanses of black spruce trees — volatile fuels that typically cast embers or “spotfires” great distances across continuous fuels (tundra) covering the forest floor.

The root systems of these trees is much shallower than in the lower 48 states, and falling trees in burned areas is a common danger, especially when the wind blows.

Beating flames into submission with “beater” or “flapper” tools works well when moisture in the tundra is near the surface. Mark 3 pumps and smaller portable pumps are invaluable on most fires, especially when underlying duff layers are dry.

Digging fireline with pulaskis only occurs where water is not available. “Tundra-trenching” is done only when necessary — digging down to mineral soil, which in Alaska is often permafrost. Firefighters peel back strips of shag-carpet like vegetation, replacing them roots-down when the fire threat has passed.

It’s not uncommon to have ice chips fly when a pulaski blade meets the permafrost. To move faster, the chains on chainsaws are often turned backwards when boring them into tundra and peat banks — some reaching six feet deep or more — to reach the permafrost.

Tussock tundra is found in low-lying and coastal areas, and walking among the tussocks can make the most graceful hikers feel vexed. Stepping on top of a tussock can end with slipping off with a twisted ankle, while stepping between tussocks can end with boots full of water. Uneven, soft ground and the lack of steep terrain in many fire-prone areas has taught Alaskan firefighters to avoid wearing boots with heels. Flat-bottomed, insulated boots made of leather and Gortex are common. Whatever boots firefighters choose, they will get wet and likely stay wet.

Rain is common during fire season in Alaska, but usually will not extinguish a fire completely until the annual “season-ending event” or southwest flow of moisture. Firefighters in Alaska are wise to bring rain gear on every deployment. Tents are optional in the lower 48, but not so in Alaska. Rain and insects usually make sleeping outside and unsheltered a miserable experience.

The Alaska Smokejumpers annually hold a “tent-flip” in the springtime, in which the last person to flip a “tails” in a group coin toss wins the opportunity to not carry a tent all season long — making this one coin toss most everyone wants to lose.

Mosquitoes are legendary in Alaska, but are not actually the state bird. It is the Willow Ptarmigan. Trying to prevent mosquitoes from drawing blood is daunting for firefighters determined to avoid using Deet (Diethyl-m-toluamide) the active ingredient in “bug dope” or mosquito repellent.

Deet was made by the U.S. Army in 1946 and absolutely repels mosquitoes, but it doesn’t kill them. What does not repel mosquitoes nearly as effectively are citrus-based sprays, baby lotion and elaborate, wearable bug nets, but they are entertaining options.

Cooking in fire camp is up to firefighters on remote assignments. Fresh-food boxes are 110-pound cardboard portable pantries, supplied to firefighters every three days. Pots and pans, squeeze butter, onions, cheese, lunch meat, jerky, canned food, fruit, candy, steaks, hot dogs and tortillas arrive cold.

Firefighters quickly learn from local firefighters — especially Native Alaskan Crews — how to build a comfortable camp with chairs and tables and cook for themselves. Tripods made of spruce poles suspend cooking pots over hot coals, above foil-wrapped bundles of salt and peppered meat and potatoes, cooked slowly and completely. Let’s eat.