Jet load of crews head south to help with busy fire season

On a mission: Upper Kalskag firefighters get their bags ready for transport from Fort Wainwright to Montana to help fight fires last Friday.

by BLM Alaska Fire Service

A mixture of young and veteran Alaska firefighters left BLM Alaska Fire Service facilities at Fort Wainwright Friday morning to help with the busy fire season in the Lower 48. Three emergency firefighter crews from Upper Kalskag, Selawik and Noorvik plus the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanook Fire Crew were handed two sack lunches and boarded a chartered jet bound for Missoula, Montana to help with fires in the Northern Rocky Area.

Upper Kalskag Squad Boss James Gregory has been fighting fires since 1971, much longer than some that he’ll be leading have been living.

“I love firefighting,” the village elder said. For him and many others heading out that morning, it was a chance to travel to new places and meet new people. Most of all, he liked “to be with the young ones and train them.”

His crew boss, Glenn Kameroff, agreed. But as Kameroff pointed out, the crews face challenges quite different than what they’d often find in Alaska during their 14-day assignment. Temperatures were expected to be in the 80s and 90s and the elevation in Missoula is 3,000 feet, well above what the EFF firefighters are used to. His primary concern is for the safety and well-being of his firefighters.

“We go out as one big happy group, we come home as one big happy group,” Kameroff said.

They’ll join 458 other Alaska-based firefighting personnel that are among the 160,000 people working on wildland fires during a very busy season in the Western U.S. Many have been working on the fire line or in support positions for weeks or even months. It’s quite a change from Alaska’s season that burned 642,778 acres – far less than the 1-2 million acre average.

Meanwhile, the Lower 48 sits poised for another record-breaking season. The fire preparedness level increased to five yesterday afternoon, the highest level, in response to large and complex fire activity in many parts of the West. Plus, it’s expected to worsen in the days and weeks ahead.

The crews that left Friday are Type 2 crews based on the level of qualifications among its firefighters. The Nanook Fire Crew is an Alaska Division of Forestry sponsored crew that is part of the Wildland Fire Science program at UAF. They just came off the Chistochina River Fire in the Copper River Area. The other crews are Type 2 emergency firefighter (EFF) crews from Northwest Arctic villages, Selawik and Noorvik, and the Kuskokwim River village of Upper Kalskag. EFF crews are mobilized on an as-needed basis. The Nanook Fire Crew is made up of young adults considering making firefighting a career and have been working together throughout the summer.

Alaska EFF crews have been fighting fires for more than 50 years. Back then, firefighting was a little bit different. As they waited to board the jet, Noorvik Crew Boss William Tikik and his trainee Franklin Coffin Sr. reminisced about their early days of their career. Both have been wildland firefighters since 1977.

“’77 was a good year. We traveled all over the place,” Tikik said. They had web gear and big packs, much different than the bright blue packs they were given the night before.

“We wore blue jeans,” Coffin said, laughing. Now they were dressed in the flame resistant bright yellow shirt and forest green pants that everyone was handed at BLM AFS warehouse. The EFF were issued a variety of equipment including fire shelters. The Forest Service made carrying a fire shelter mandatory the same year the Tikik and Coffin started their careers.

Type 2 EFF crews are typically mobilized to the Lower 48 in groups of five using large transport aircraft arranged through National Incident Coordination Center. Crews mobilized to assignments outside of Alaska consist of 20 personnel. An agency-assigned and experienced crew representative is assigned to help look after the crew’s best interests during their assignment. Otherwise, a crew consists of a crew boss, three squad bosses, up to four sawyers, and 9-15 crew members that are littered that may include a variety of trainees. Additionally, an interagency resource representative and a crew administrative representative will be assigned to each group of crews travelling together to facilitate the interaction with incident management teams and dispatch centers in all matters pertaining to the crews.

There are 38 Alaska EFF crews on the rotation list. However, some crews are were unavailable this week because members were out fishing or hunting. For many EFF, the money garnered through wildland firefighting supplements a subsistence lifestyle

In addition to the four crews, Alaska-based firefighting personnel helping in the Lower 48 include 211 from Alaska Division of Forestry; 204 from Bureau of Land Management; nine from National Park Service; one from National Weather Service; two State of Alaska employees from non-DOF departments; 23 from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 23 from U.S. Forest Service and one in the “other” category. They are in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and New Mexico.