The Alaska Type 1 Incident Management Team, two Alaska hotshot crews and more than a dozen Alaska Smokejumpers have been mobilized to the Lower 48 to assist with wildland fire management in the western United States.
The Alaska IMT, which consists of approximately 70 highly trained wildland firefighting personnel from multiple Alaska state and federal agencies, flew out on a chartered jet from the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) on Tuesday. The Team will be prepositioned in Boise, Idaho, home to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), to await an assignment.
In addition to the Alaska IMT, two Alaska hotshot crews and 17 Alaska Smokejumpers have departed Alaska to the Lower 48 to support fire suppression and management efforts.
Judging from the level of wildfire activity currently in the western U.S., the Team won’t have to wait long for an assignment. As of Tuesday morning, 14 of the country’s 16 Type 1 IMTs were assigned to fires in six different states – California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. There were also 22 Type 2 IMTs assigned to fires in those six states as well as Colorado and Wyoming.
Historic drought across the western U.S. has fire managers worried that this could be a devastating fire season. The National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) elevated the National Preparedness Level to PL5 – on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the highest – on July 14. This is the earliest the NICC went to PL 5 in the past 10 years. As of Tuesday there was more than 19,300 firefighting personnel assigned to 107 different fires in 11 states. There is a critical resource shortage for crews, engines, incident management teams and overhead personnel.
Given the dire situation in the western U.S. and the fact that Alaska often relies on resources from the Lower 48 to help manage wildfires during busy seasons, Alaska IMT Incident Commander Norm McDonald said wildland firefighters in Alaska are obligated to help out in the Lower 48.
“It’s part of our duty and our mission,” said McDonald, who also serves as chief of the Alaska Division of Forestry’s Wildland Fire and Aviation Program. “We’re part of a national response plan and will do what we can to help. When we need support from the Lower 48, like we did in 2019 when we brought more than 5,000 personnel up from 45 different states, they come up and help us. We’re going to do everything we can to help them.”
BLM Alaska Fire Service manager Kent Slaughter echoed McDonald’s sentiments.
“We have a dual responsibility to serve the public in Alaska as well as the rest of the country,” he said. “We balance those needs carefully and weigh the risks and forecasts. We are supporting the efforts in the rest of the country with helicopters, smokejumpers, and the Chena Hotshots. Our fire management officers ensure that we keep the resources necessary to respond to new fires.”
With recent hot, dry weather across the eastern Interior and Southcentral and no significant rain in the forecast, fire season in Alaska isn’t over yet. With continued potential for wildfires in Alaska, both McDonald and Slaughter stressed that adequate resources will remain to respond to any new wildfires.
“Our first priority is protecting Alaskans,” McDonald said. “We want to ensure there are enough resources here to honor that commitment.”
Once significant rainfall puts an end to Alaska’s fire season, additional resources will be made available to assist in the Lower 48, as is typically the case from late July through September.
The Division of Forestry’s Pioneer Peak Interagency Hotshot Crew traveled to Boise with the Alaska IMT on Tuesday while the BLM Alaska Fire Service’s Chena IHC traveled to Boise last week. The Chena Hotshots are currently working on the 2,086-acre Green Ridge Fire in the Umatilla National Forest in Oregon. There are also a handful of overhead personnel from Alaska in the Lower 48.
As of Tuesday, resources remaining in Alaska include one Type 1 hotshot crew, two Type 2 initial attack crews and five Type 2 crews, as well as an air tanker, four water-scooping aircraft and multiple helicopters at both the Division of Forestry and BLM Alaska Fire Service. DOF’s six Area stations around the state are also staffed with a full compliment of firefighters and engines for initial attack on fires.