BLM innovates rural Alaska wildland firefighting and keeps traditions alive

When Cliff Alexander started fighting fire in 1977, his grandfathers were two of the squad bosses on his Type 2 emergency firefighter (EFF) crew.

Now a squad boss on the Capstone 1 Type 2 BLM Contract Crew, Alexander had a few grand-nephews working on the crew this summer, including 20-year-old Matthew Titus, a rookie from Minto. The crew was made up of firefighters from Tanana, Minto, Nenana, Mountain Village, and Marshall. Titus said all six of his fellow crewmembers from Minto are related.

  • Yellow clad firefighters digging in the dirt in a burned forest.
  • Three male firefighters digging in the dirt while working in a forest.
  • Yellow clad firefighters digging in dirt in a burned forest.
  • Yellow clad firefighters moving dirt and debris back into a cleared area.
  • Firefighter walking with three other firefighter digging in the dirt behind him.

The Capstone 1 Crew was one of three contracts awarded for 20-person Type 2 hand crews based in the BLM Alaska Fire Service’s Upper Yukon and Tanana Fire Management Zones in 2020. This crew, plus the other two Type 2 Alaska contract crews – contracted through the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments (CATG) based in Fort Yukon and Scorched Earth Services, LLC, (SES) based in Huslia – spent an average of 61 days on fires in Alaska and the Lower 48 last year and were again assigned to fires in 2021.

These crews were so successful in 2020, the BLM AFS expanded the program to Western Alaska the following year. The addition of three contracts to crews in numerous Yukon River communities will allow for the quick response to fires throughout the BLM AFS protection area covering about 191.5 million acres in the northern half of the state – an area larger than the state of Texas.

Firefighter Walter Peter Sr. (in front) and Jean-Pierre Trembley prepare to work on the Tamarack Fire in Nevada. The pair are firefighters on the CATG Type 2 Contact Crew. Photo by Hudson Plass, BLM AFS

These crews are predominately made up of Alaska Natives whose families have spent generations working on EFF hand crews in Alaska, supplementing the agency employee crews. It’s a rich tradition that many throughout rural Alaska are proud of and was one of the few sources of income in rural Alaska. The number of federal EFF crews dwindled in the past two decades as other employment opportunities arose, populations shifted, and the BLM fully implemented national requirements for all federal firefighters.

To keep this vital tradition alive, the BLM AFS contract crew program was established to meet the need for Type 2 wildland firefighting crews available for response in Alaska and the lower 48. It is the first of its kind for BLM nationally.

The contract crews must adhere to national qualifications for Type 2 hand crews. The solicitation was a competitive process for qualified entities to ensure viable crews are available when called upon.

Unlike federal EFF crews that are hired for emergency situations, contracted crews can work on non-emergency projects, such as fuels mitigation. Contract crews have provided more stable employment than the prior EFF program with more days worked and the opportunity for benefits paid by contractors. Private contractors can and have provided additional wildland fire opportunities to Alaska firefighters. The lower 48 based contractor for the Capstone 1 Crew tapped its pool of Alaska firefighters for assignments on fire engines and a helicopter crew in the western states to give them more experience and training.

Male yellow-clad firefighters digging in the dirt on a burned hillside.
The BLM-contracted Type 2 CATG Crew with firefighters from Fort Yukon, Venetie and Arctic Village repairs a dozer line while working on the Tamarack Fire burning at the Nevada-California border on Aug. 6, 2021. The crew is contracted through the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments and adheres to national Type 2 qualifications. Photo by Hudson Plass, BLM AFS

The SES and CATG crews are based in Alaska and are owned by Alaska Natives and Native organizations, giving Indigenous groups additional opportunities to manage their own wildland fire crew program and play a larger role in wildland firefighting in Alaska and the lower 48

As part of the contracts, all crew members must be located in the crew region during the mandatory availability period from June 1 to Aug. 31 to enable them to quickly respond to wildfires in Alaska. Some contractors employ additional support staff to help maintain records and provide training. The contract crews are self-sufficient while on assignments with contractors providing more support, transportation, and equipment. This includes renting trucks instead of having crews shuttled around by bus that can limit where they can work due to rough terrain.

Group of firefighters standing behind lined up fire packs.
The SES Fire Type 2 Contract Crew, made up of firefighters from Huslia and Allakaket, was inspected in Fairbanks on July 22, 2021, before it headed to the Lower 48 to work on the Tamarack in Nevada. The SES Crew, which is contracted through business Scorched Earth Services, LLC, out of Huslia, is in its second year as a BLM contract crew. The crew adheres to national Type 2 qualifications. Photo by Beth Ipsen, BLM AFS

BLM AFS still maintains a list of single-resource casual hires for single resource hires. Because there weren’t enough remaining qualified EFF responders in regions that were not awarded contacts, the BLM AFS no longer administers a Type 2 EFF Crew program. The State of Alaska’s operates its own EFF program, separate from AFS.

BLM AFS Statewide EFF and Contract Crew Coordinator Hudson Plass is pleased with how the program has worked for BLM AFS and given Alaska Native wildland firefighters, many of whom he’s known for years, even more opportunities for work. Working closely with contract officers from the BLM National Operations Center in Denver, Plass was instrumental in creating this first of its kind contract crew program for BLM nationally. He hopes the program will continue to grow to ensure there are enough hand crews to fit the needs in Alaska and the lower 48 while giving Alaska’s Indigenous peoples the chance to continue this long-standing tradition of wildland firefighting.

Yellow-clad firefighters walk over scorched grasslands.
The BLM-contracted Type 2 S.E.S Fire Crew with firefighters from Allakaket and Huslia does a gridded search for hotspots in neighborhoods impacted by the 68,393-acre Tamarack Fire on July 27, 2021. Photo by Hudson Plass, BLM AFS

“It warms my heart to actually see these new contract crews out working, both in Alaska and the lower 48,” Plass said. “The old EFF crew program was no longer offering what we needed it to. We have a new mechanism that appears to be working in ways we had hoped for and even in ways we had not considered.

“I truly believe we are on a much better path in terms of solving the problems that come with not having enough Type 2 resources available,” he added. “Keeping these resources out working longer allows for more experienced, more proficient and just overall more robust Type 2 crews.”

~Story by Beth Ipsen, BLM AFS Public Affairs (, 907-356-5510)

For more photos of Alaska Type 2 Contract Crews in 2020 and 2021, visit the BLM Alaska Fire Service Flickr album at

Categories: AK Fire Info, BLM Alaska Fire Service

Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: