History of helping: BLM AFS hotshot crews support fire suppression in the Lower 48

Story by Carrie Bilbao, Public Affairs Specialist for BLM Fire and Aviation. Photos by Carrie Bilbao and courtesy of Jon Larson, retired BLM employee. Story was originally written for BLM Fire and Aviation

Every year, as fire activity increases in the western United States, available fire resources are committed to incidents and hand crews — especially hotshot crews —are in high demand. On July 24, 2020, two Alaska-based BLM hotshot crews, Chena and Midnight Sun, arrived at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho to support the fire suppression effort in the Lower 48 for the remainder of fire season as they have done intermittently since 1987.

Wildland firefighters walking away from airplane.
Alaska Fire Service interagency hotshot crews – Chena and the Midnight Sun – along with the Alaska Division of Forestry White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack Crew arrive at NIFC on July 24, 2020 via the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) contracted jet. Photo by Carrie Bilbao, BLM Fire and Aviation

These two Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs) were established in 1984, two years after the Alaska Fire Service was established at United States Army Garrison, Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. The first crew came to the Lower 48 for fire assignments in 1985, and in 1987 the Alaska Fire Service hotshot program entered into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service for a crew exchange. The arrangement has changed a bit over the years, but the Alaska wildland firefighting crews continue to fly south when needed.

“Initially, the details to the Lower 48 were beneficial to the newly formed Alaska IHC crews since it allowed the opportunity for saw experience in larger trees as well as handline construction, which is seldom used in Alaska firefighting,” recalls Jon Larson, former Chena Superintendent and the first to lead the hotshot crew in 1984. “Of course, now that the crews go down south nearly every year, it is not as important a factor. Not only does the Lower 48 detail help the interagency firefighting effort in these times of increasing large fire activity, it also helps the Alaska IHC program in recruiting crew members who are interested in working a longer fire season. Since the Alaska fire season normally begins early, around May, and generally winds down anytime from mid-July to mid-August, it matches well with the large fire season in the American West.”

Firefighters collecting bags.
Crews gather their personal gear after arriving at NIFC. Anticipating a long assignment, they packed for an extended stay of at least a couple of months. Photo by Carrie Bilbao, BLM Fire and Aviation

Typically, in mid-July, Alaska fires are put into limited response, which means not all fire resources are needed for suppression. This frees up crews to come down to the Lower 48 and assist with fires. These crews will stay for the remainder of the fire season unless activity picks up again in Alaska and they need to return home. Both IHCs are dispatched through the Boise Interagency Dispatch Center and are available for assignment within the geographic area and nationally.

Firefighter sitting in truck.
Midnight Sun Superintendent Miles Bond waits for a fire assignment with the rest of the hotshot crew at the NIFC Mobilization Center on July 27, 2020. Photo by Carrie Bilbao, BLM Fire and Aviation

“Usually when we get here, we are shipped off to a fire right away. It’s not bad to be able to acclimate for a couple days coming from 500-foot elevation and cooler temperatures,” said Midnight Sun Superintendent Miles Bond while staging at the NIFC Mobilization Center after arriving on July 24. “We appreciate the national office hosting us, having vehicles and supplies stored for us, and we are ready to assist in fire suppression when things slow down in Alaska.”

Jeff Arnberger, Chief, Branch of Preparedness and Suppression Operations said, “When the Alaska crews come to the Lower 48 to help with the fire situation, we’re happy to offer them a consistent and dependable ‘home away from home.’ Boise is a central location in the west with easy access to a jetport, and provides them with administrative space as well as gear storage, refurbishment areas, and vehicle maintenance services. The arrangement works well for all parties and has really enhanced the safety and efficiency of the BLM Alaska hotshot crews.”

Photo of wildland firefighting crew buggies.
The Midnight Sun hotshots stage for deployment to a fire incident with their crew buggies at the NIFC Mobilization Center. Photo by Carrie Bilbao, BLM Fire and Aviation.

Hotshot crews were first established in Southern California in the late 1940s on the Cleveland and Angeles National Forests. They were called “hotshot” crews because they worked on the hottest part of wildfires. Interagency hotshot crews (IHCs) are staffed, conditioned, equipped, and qualified to meet a variety of strategic and tactical wildland fire assignments. When not committed to fire assignments, IHCs can provide a workforce to accomplish a variety of resource management objectives while maintaining availability for incident mobilization.The U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, state, and county agencies sponsor more than 100 Interagency Hotshots Crews, with most located in the western United States. The Alaska Division of Forestry’s Pioneer Peak Hotshots rounds out Alaska’s hotshot crews. All three, plus 11 other Alaska handcrews, are currently assigned to fires in the Lower 48.

Crew of firefighters in Alaska
The Chena hotshot crew photos in the mid-1980’s in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Jon Larson, retired BLM employee and former Chena Superintendent.

Categories: BLM Alaska Fire Service

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