A day in the life of a wildland firefighter is anything but easy.
With hundreds of firefighters currently working to contain the Swan Lake Fire, however, it can be easy to forget that each one has a different background and a different story to tell. The Clarion had the opportunity on Friday to visit several active areas of the Swan Lake Fire and get to know the people underneath the Nomex and the hardhats.
The Swan Lake Fire has been burning on the Kenai Peninsula since June 5, and right now 751 personnel are scattered around its perimeter. In some areas, fire crews are actively suppressing flames with hoses and aerial water drops. In others, they are clearing burned trees and spraying down ash pits in order to prevent any future flare-ups.
In order to quickly access the areas that need fire suppression, spike camps have been set up at Otter Creek and Quartz Creek. These camps are where many of the firefighters sleep and eat when they are not directly on the line and act as a staging point for each day’s operations.
At the Otter Creek spike camp — located about 5 miles north of Sterling — each morning starts with breakfast and coffee at 6 a.m. followed by a 7 a.m. morning briefing, when crews are given general updates before breaking out into their individual divisions to discuss the day’s assignments and priorities.
Cheveyo Munk is a firefighter from Northern California, and for the Swan Lake Fire he is the current division supervisor for Division Echo, which consists mostly of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area south of the Sterling Highway.
Munk was in Alaska about six weeks ago and was part of the contingency group in place south of the highway — before the fire jumped the highway due to a weekend of heavy winds. Now Munk and his team are focused on structure protection for the campgrounds and public use cabins in the area.
When asked what it was like to live and work from a tent in the spike camp, Munk didn’t have any complaints.
“Oh it’s great. This is my office — the outdoors. I love it,” Munk said. “We got hot coffee and plenty of food. We’re living good.”
Munk said that he is thankful for the support that he and his team have received from the community and is glad to do is part.
“I’m just happy to be out here helping out and being part of the solution,” Munk said.
Not all the firefighters are from the Lower 48. Victor Williams, for example, makes his home in Ruby, Alaska. Williams said that he spends most of his time doing construction work, but he quickly answered the call when they asked him to join the fight.
“They needed firefighters, so here I am,” Williams said.
When asked what it was like at the spike camp, Williams was more candid than most.
“ … cold,” Williams said. Williams added that Friday morning was the warmest it had been at the camp since he arrived.
Williams and the other firefighters are on the clock for 16 hours at a time, with about 12 to 14 of those hours spent directly on the line. Williams said that they pretty much go right to bed after a day out on the line.
“You can’t complain about it — it ain’t gonna help or make it go by any faster,” Williams said. “I just came out here to do what I get paid for.”
Glen Kameroff is also an Alaska firefighter and is the crew boss for the Upper Kalskag crew. Kameroff said that he and his crew have been working along Skilak Lake Road finding hot spots and clearing trees that need to be knocked down. For Kameroff, the safety of his crew is always his No. 1 priority.
“A lot of the trees, the roots have been burnt out so it’s pretty hazardous for the crews, but I keep a sharp eye on them,” Kameroff said. “Any time the winds pick up, I pull my crew out of the area. I don’t want anything falling on them.”
Friday was the sixth day on the line for Kameroff’s crew. Kameroff said that the biggest challenge has been waiting for new supplies to arrive. Specifically, Kameroff and his crew have been waiting four days for replacement chainsaw parts.
“The chains, they wear out pretty fast,” Kameroff said. “We’re constantly sharpening them and the chain stretches, so it comes to the point where you just have to leave a saw and continue on with what we have.”
During Friday morning’s briefing at the spike camp, management personnel including Incident Commander Marty Adell underscored the importance of safety on the line. There have been several medical incidents over the last week, including one firefighter losing the tip of their finger and a paramedic having an allergic reaction to bees.
EMT Fontella Webster said that the heavy smoke conditions for the last week have made it impossible for aerial medical evacuations, which presents a challenge for herself and the other medical responders. Fontella is from Ronan, Montana, and is in her first year as an EMT.
“I’m more used to working directly on the line back home,” Webster said.
Webster and one paramedic are currently the only medical crew monitoring the western side of the fire, so they have a wide area and a large number of people to keep an eye on. In cases where aerial evacuation is not possible, Webster and her coworker have to hike to the location with all of their trauma gear loaded on their backs.
Down on the containment line that makes up the southwestern perimeter of the fire, Division Charlie Supervisor Kip Shields explained what his crews were doing to extend and reinforce the dozer line already in place. Shields is a fire specialist from Fairbanks and spent the last 15 years as a smoke jumper.
Miles of hose run along the dozer line with a junction every 50 feet or so that allow firefighters to quickly hook up and start spraying down any areas of activity. The line branches off from Skilak Lake Road and extends several miles down to Skilak Lake.
Shields and his crews have been working to extend the dozer line an additional hundred feet by cutting down trees and mopping up hot spots. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to mopping up an area in this part of Alaska is that the layers of duff — organic material that is susceptible to burning — can be up to 16 inches deep. This means that duff can smolder far under the surface, and it is also why many areas of the fire have seen renewed activity in already-burned areas.
Sight, smell and feel are all used when crews look for hot spots. Shields said that sometimes the right sunlight will make it easier to pick out small patches of smoke on the ground, and drones equipped with infrared cameras also help.
Down in Cooper Landing, Friday afternoon offered much clearer skies than the residents had experienced over the last week. Crews are working all around the community to create contingency lines that weave together roads, dozer lines and trails in a network of fuel breaks that are meant to prevent any flames from spreading quickly throughout the town.
While some crews spent the day clearing trees along the sides of roads and sending them through the wood chipper, others have been meeting with Cooper Landing residents to clear trees and set up hoses and sprinkler systems around their properties.
Michael Link lives in Anchorage but owns a home in Cooper Landing that he intends to make his permanent residence. Link has spent the last week in Cooper Landing preparing his home for the worst.
“I came down for what I thought would be a two-day trip and just never left,” Link said.
Link said he didn’t have to do too much to prepare his property, because last year the State of Alaska did a FireWise assessment on his home and told him what needed to be done.
Link had already cleared most of the fuels that were in close proximity to his house, so all the firefighters had to do was bring in the hoses and sprinkler systems and set up a 1500-gallon water tank to service his property and his three neighbors’ homes.
Link said he was confident about the structure protection in place and complimented the firefighters for being polite, informative and helpful.