Three Alaska wildland firefighting crews headed to the Lower 48 on Friday to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in the western United States.
The three crews – the BLM Alaska Fire Service Midnight Sun and Chena interagency hotshot crews and the Alaska Division of Forestry White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack Crew – boarded a jet at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks on Friday morning. The jet was flown to Alaska from the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho on Thursday to transport the crews to Boise, where they will be quickly assigned to one of a multitude of wildfires burning in the western U.S.
“It’s always sad leaving Alaska but it will be good to get down there,” Iris Sager, crew superintendent for the Chena hotshot crew, said.
Alaska’s fire season was slowed by abundant and widespread rainfall the past five weeks that has dampened wildfire danger across the state. Because of this, Alaska’s wildland fire agencies have made many resources available to assist with the national firefighting effort while keeping adequate firefighters and aircraft in Alaska to handle any fire activity here.
The mobilization of firefighting resources to the Lower 48 is an annual tradition, similar to Alaska importing firefighters and aircraft from the Lower 48 to assist with wildfires here. Firefighters from Alaska travel to the Lower 48 almost every year to help other agencies battle wildfires after the Alaska fire season winds down, usually in mid- to late-July.
The three crews that departed Alaska on Friday totaled 62 firefighters and they join approximately 60 other Alaska firefighting personnel that are already working in the Lower 48. One other crew – the Division of Forestry’s Pioneer Peak Interagency Hotshot Crew – flew south last week and is working on the Cedar Fire in Nevada.
In addition, 13 Alaska Smokejumpers are in the L48 working, as well as multiple other personnel filling positions such as dispatchers, heavy equipment managers, engine bosses and division supervisors.
Three more Division of Forestry crews – the Gannett Glacier, Tanana Chiefs and Yukon Type 2 initial attack crews – are scheduled to fly to the Lower 48 early next week.
Given the fact that Alaska’s wildland fire season has been very slow this season and crews have been relegated to working on fuels reduction projects and other project work the past several weeks, firefighters welcomed the opportunity to head south to work on actual fires.
“We’ve spent less than 20 days on fires this summer,” White Mountain crew superintendent Owen Smith said as he waited to board Friday’s flight. “Everybody is ready for an assignment.”
As of Friday, a total of 309 fires had burned an estimated 178,025 acres in Alaska this summer, which is well below the approximately 650,000 acres that burns in a typical fire season. While there are still 49 fires listed as active on the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center’s daily situation report, only one of those – the Isom Creek Fire along the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks – was staffed with firefighting personnel. The BLM Alaska Fire Service’s North Star Fire Crew was removing hose that was laid out during that fire several weeks ago but were scheduled to demobilize today before heading out to burn woody debris piles on military training lands near Eielson Air Force starting as early as Monday.
Barring any major drying event in Alaska over the next month or two, crews will likely remain in the Lower 48 until fire season in the western U.S. dies down, which isn’t typically until September or October.
Firefighters wore facemasks as they lined up to board the plane on Friday at Fort Wainwright. Two BLM Alaska Fire Service workers, also wearing facemasks, handed each firefighter a bagged lunch as they boarded the flight to Boise.
While the increase in COVID-19 cases in Alaska and across the U.S. is a concern, it’s something the crews and other Alaska firefighting personnel have been dealing with since the season started in April. Agencies and crews have COVID protocols in place to help prevent the spread of the virus and each crew was traveling with at least three days of personal protective equipment such as facemasks and hand sanitizer.
“I think it would be harder if any of us had families and didn’t live by ourselves,” Smith said in reference to mobilizing to the Lower 48 during the pandemic. “It definitely makes it interesting.”
Returning personnel will follow Alaska state and local health mandates addressing testing and quarantining upon return from their Lower 48 assignments. In some cases, personnel will spend days off in the Lower 48 instead of returning to Alaska in between fire assignments.