“How Do They Do It?” A Closer Look at Fire Management in Southwest Alaska.

Southwest Alaska Area Fire Management Officer (AFMO) Seth Ross pedals his bike swiftly toward helibase. One of three nearby helicopters begins to spool up, its rotors gaining momentum as five initial attack (IA) helitack firefighters wait inside, ready. Ross motions to the helibase manager to come over just before he motions to marshal the ship away.

AFMO Seth Ross Talks With Helitak Crewmember at Helibase

The two talk until the roar of the single turbine engine makes it impossible. Ross is undeterred, yelling over the deafening noise. Now using hand gestures, Ross points toward himself and then the ship, relaying his priorities for the crew. The helitak manager nods in agreement and turns toward the ship, giving the command to lift off.

Ross served five years in the U.S. Air Force. He also worked as a Silver City Hotshot in New Mexico, a helicopter rappeler in Idaho, and an AFMO for the Tongas National Forest.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” said Ross, smiling. In his fourth year leading operations at the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Forestry (DOF) McGrath Fire Base, Ross has developed a style tailor-made to lead one of the last forward-operating wildland firefighting bases in the world. Most of Ross’ staff are temporary emergency firefight- ers (EFF). Ten permanent seasonal positions were cut in 2015 in an effort to scale back costs. “We make it work,” said Ross. I have great admiration for the dedication and professionalism of the staff here, and we have a really strong connection to the local community.”

Helitack Crewmembers Load Initial Attack Helicopter.

Ross shares responsibility for managing wildfire protection of 88 million acres of Alaska’s Southwest Area with MatSu Area Forestry Fire Management Officer (FMO) Phil Blydenbergh, based in Palmer, 228 southeast of McGrath. The DNR also operates DOF stations in Copper River, Tok, Delta, and Fairbanks.

“It’s a big shared area,” said Ross of the Mat-Su southwest area, explaining how the Mat-Su area differs from greater southwest Alaska. “Mat-Su has a high concentration of urban interface fires, but out here we’re wildfire almost exclusively,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for our firefighters to be versatile in both capacities.” When fire season ramped up in 2019, Ross’ priorities remained protecting villages threatened by fire including Red Devil and Nikolai, and commercial infrastructure including the Nixon and Donlin Mines.

“It’s easier to relay our needs from here in McGrath,” explained Ross. “We get our orders and our staffing right, and everybody here is used to wearing more than one hat.” As fire activity and new fire starts increase, Ross looks for support staff that not only has Alaska experience, but knowledge of the McGrath area. “We start with getting things done ourselves and then ask for help as we need it.” said Ross.

This season that support included Planning Section Chief Brentwood Reid, formerly a permanent seasonal initial attack technician at the McGrath Fire Base. “He’s a top gun, and he makes a great product,” Ross said, referring to incident action summaries and maps made by Reid and his planning and situation staff. Other support positions joining the effort this season in- cluded specialists hired in expanded dispatch, logistics and public information.

Operational Briefing at the DNR McGrath Fire Base Kitchen

Fire management at the McGrath Fire Base adheres to the Incident Command System (ICS), the framework for managing all-risk incidents that reach beyond wildfires, including natural and human-caused disasters such as the attacks of September 11. The ICS designates positions for command and general staff, and everyone knows what their job responsibilities entail.

Ross implements several training simulations in the springtime for each of the units at the   base. “We simulate having multiple fires on the landscape, involving everyone from dispatch to the ramp and warehouse to the kitchen,” said Ross. By the time fire season visits the southwest area, Ross’ staff at the McGrath Fire Base is prepared. “The units and staff don’t need minute details every day — they operate better without micro-management. They know what to do,” nodded Ross.

Photos: Mike McMillan – DNR

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