100th crew from Lower 48 arrives in Fairbanks

This picture depicts firefighters walking down the stairs from a passenger jet onto the airport tarmac.
Members of a Minnesota interagency handcrew step off a jet in Fairbanks, Alaska as they prepare to fight wildfires in the Last Frontier.

As blue-shirted ranks of firefighters stepped off a chartered jet and onto the tarmac of Fort Wainwright’s Ladd Army Airfield on Saturday evening, a 2019 milestone was reached for Alaska. Arrival of the five interagency handcrews from midwestern states marked the 100th crew coming to Alaska from the Lower 48 to fight fire this year.

Given its vast landscape and small population, the Last Frontier’s own firefighting forces are quickly depleted when an unusual wildfire season strikes, so reinforcements are called in from across the nation. Californian hotshot crews, Idahoan smokejumpers, Oregonian rappellers and handcrews from as far away as Ohio and New Jersey have worked side-by-side this summer with emergency firefighters and the University of Alaska’s Nanooks fire crew, among many others, to defend Alaska’s communities, infrastructure, and native allotments.

This picture depicts firefighters moving bags of their personal gear out of the cargo hold of an aircraft.
Members of the Missouri-Iowa Interagency Crew unload their gear from the cargo hold of a Boeing 737-400.

For these interagency crews comprising federal, tribal, and state employees from Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin, their 3,000-mile journey across four time zones was little short of an odyssey.

Red and blue bags of personal gear and firefighting equipment piled on the edge of tarmac near firefighting aircraft
One hundred firefighters means 100 bags of personal gear.

“We drove 15 hours to Hibbing, Minnesota just to get on the plane,” remembered one member of the Indiana Interagency Crew. An 8-hour flight followed (including one fuel stop in Seattle, Washington). After landing, with no baggage carousels at Ladd Field, members of each crew stayed on the ramp to help unload thousands of pounds of their personal gear.

After a hasty dinner in the BLM Alaska Fire Service Dining Hall, all 100 new arrivals filed into a large training room to learn about the unique challenges they’d be facing in the bush — Tussock tundra, food boxes and tundra coolers — and the specialized tactics, risks and mitigation strategies that come along with fighting fire in Alaska.

On Sunday, the five crews went their separate ways, boarding light aircraft and trucks destined for unfamiliar places like Chalkyitsik, Fort Yukon and Delta Junction. Thousands of miles from home, each firefighter expressed, in their own ways, their drive and determination to fight wildfire in Alaska.

Firefighters sit in a classroom during an orientation session.
Firefighters from across the Midwest receive a briefing on the unique challenges and tactics of fighting Alaskan wildfires.

“I’m psyched to be here,” said Bria Fleming, a firefighter with the National Park Service’s Indiana Dunes National Park.

“This is my first time in Alaska and I want to represent Wisconsin the best way I can,” said Isaiah Funmaker, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employee deployed as a squad boss on the Wisconsin Interagency Crew.

“We travel to these beautiful places and get to work protecting the resource. That’s the adventure of firefighting.”

Story and photos by Travis Mason-Bushman

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