Life in a remote Alaska fire camp

Firefighter Lorena Sims cooks her steak over a fire while on the Zitziana River Fire in June of 2018.
Firefighter Lorena Sims cooks her steak over a campfire while on the Zitziana River Fire in June of 2018.
Tim Hatfield, the incident commander in training on the Chandalar River Fire, talks to the BLM AFS Upper Yukon Zone duty officer via satellite phone while Incident Commander Graham Rice listens as he drinks his morning coffee on July 18, 2019.
Tim Hatfield, the incident commander in training on the Chandalar River Fire, talks to the BLM AFS Upper Yukon Zone duty officer via satellite phone while Incident Commander Graham Rice listens as he drinks his morning coffee on July 18, 2019.

While fire camps in rural Alaska can be similar to remote fires in the Lower 48, they have their own special concerns and qualities. Morning operational briefings are broadcasted over hand-held radios. Every one gathers underneath at big yellow tarp for breakfast in the morning and dinner before bedtime. The coffee pot hangs from a tripod over a campfire in the morning, where dinner is cooked later that day. It’s a place to relax after a long day on the fireline. It can be quiet with the exception of the crackle of a hand-held radio and an occasional chatter between firefighters.

Because there are no facilities nearby, fire camps need to be self-sufficient. Camps are based on distance to fires and easy access for helicopters to deliver people and supplies. There is a pantry area created to store fresh food with an assortment of canned goods, vegetables, meats, cheeses, tortillas and bread. A tundra refrigerator is a hole dug down to the permafrost and covered with a makeshift lid to keep perishable goods cool for several days. Wash basins and kitchen areas are fashioned by fresh food boxes and empty cubies – 5-gallon containers used to hold drinking and cooking water. Each crew digs its own latrine.

Equipment, such as beaters and Pulaskis, are stored neatly at fire camp when not in use.
Equipment, such as beaters and Pulaskis, are stored neatly at fire camp when not in use.

Some camps can get elaborate with furniture fashioned out of spruce or birch trees.

Firefighter Candice Norman washes her hands in a makeshift wash basin made out of an empty cubie on the Zitziana River Fire in June of 2018.
Firefighter Candice Norman washes her hands in a makeshift wash basin made out of an empty cubie on the Zitziana River Fire in June of 2018.

A big concern is the possibility the camps will attract bears. Steps are taken to make sure bears don’t get accustomed to firefighter camps and the food that is associated with them. In some places, crews build caches to keep food out of reach or even install an electric bear fence. BLM Alaska Fire Service Chena Interagency Hotshot Max Ryan gives a tour of the crew’s fire camp on the Hadweenzic River Fire in the Cornucopia Complex about 20 miles northeast of Beaver in this video.

Firefighters get creative when cooking food on fires in remote Alaska fire camps. There’s no grocery store nearby or is someone else brought in to cook. In the first few days, meals ready to eat, or MREs, are the staple. If the incident will last more than three days, firefighters order fresh food that if often delivered by paracargo drops from an airplane or brought in by helicopter. This is an exciting time on a fire, especially after a few days of eating MREs. Inside these boxes are an assortment of food such as oranges, apples, onions, potatoes, butter, tortillas, peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese, loaves of bread, canned vegetables and fruit and refried beans, eggs and cooked bacon to name a few. There’s even steak that is often cooked by sticking on the end of the stick and propping over a fire.

Experienced Alaskan firefighters can whip up a breakfast or dinner over hot coals in no time. And there’s usually a pot of coffee hanging over the fire. Lunch is usually put together in the morning and brought out on the line to eat later. There’s a bit of a learning curve for firefighters coming from the Lower 48. The Redmond Interagency Hotshot Crew from Oregon caught on quickly. They utilized the camp facilities at Camp Nashii on the Yukon River to cook breakfast and dinner while assigned to the Hadweenzic River Fire northeast of Beaver as as firefighters Kaleigh Krings, Jesse Fenno, and Adam Zais explain in this video.

The last thing the BLM Alaska Fire Service Alaska Handy Dandy Firefighting Field Guide says about Alaska Fire Camp is “Don’t complain about the mosquitoes or the rain.”

~Story, photos, and video by Beth Ipsen, BLM Alaska Fire Service public affairs specialist

The Yukon Flats Emergency Firefighter Crew relaxes after coming off the fireline on the Chandalar River Fire on July 17, 2019.

About BLM Alaska Fire Service

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) located at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, provides wildland fire suppression services for over 244 million acres of Department of the Interior and Native Corporation Lands in Alaska. In addition, AFS has other statewide responsibilities that include: interpretation of fire management policy; oversight of the BLM Alaska Aviation program; fuels management projects; and operating and maintaining advanced communication and computer systems such as the Alaska Lightning Detection System. AFS also maintains a National Incident Support Cache with a $10 million inventory. The Alaska Fire Service provides wildland fire suppression services for America’s “Last Frontier” on an interagency basis with the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Military in Alaska.

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