The last time 300 firefighters were on the Central Kenai Peninsula, a wildfire consumed nearly 200,000 acres of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Starting Saturday through Sept. 27, firefighters from all over the state will converge on the peninsula for the 2014 Alaska Fire Conference.
While there will be flames, they’ll be for training purposes. Emergency responders will use the week to brush up on tactics and learn from experts in a variety of scenarios.
The Kenai Chapter of the Alaska State Firefighters Association will host the week long training conference. The Kenai Fire Department, Central Emergency Services and the Nikiski Fire Department will host sessions on fighting fires and rescue response on land, water and aircraft, said Bud Sexton, Nikiski Fire Department public information officer.
Sexton said it is a big deal to have the conference on the Kenai Peninsula this year because it allows more local firefighters to attend multiple training courses and doesn’t strain limited travel budgets. The conference was last held on the Kenai Peninsula in 2003.
“To get all the training in our backyard is helpful to all the area departments,” he said. “Sometimes we are only able to send one person per shift for training. To be the hosts, the whole department can attend different sessions and if we get calls we can handle them as it goes.”
Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker said the Kenai Peninsula is an ideal location for the conference. The Beacon Fire Training Center and Kenai Municipal Airport Fire Station in Kenai, along with the CES training facility and the proximity of the Cook Inlet and oil and gas refineries in Nikiski offer a wide range of training opportunities, he said.
“The networking with other fire personnel from around the state and the benefit you get from the training and shared techniques you can’t quantify its significance,” Tucker said. “We live in a large state with a lot of small communities. We all know each other and it’s a good time to reconnect and share knowledge.”
Training seminars include rapid intervention team, where firefighters will simulate rescues in live exercises and helicopter underwater egress training, during which attendees will be submerged in a pool and learn escape methods in the event of a water crash.
Throughout the week, participants have the opportunities to attend training for shipboard firefighting, fire truck operations, industrial firefighting and rescue techniques like how to cut up vehicles with extrication tools and swift water boat rescue exercises in the Kenai River.
“One of the most important things we have here is the oil and gas industry that’s a major component of our community,” Nikiski Fire Chief James Baisden said. “We want to bring these guys in to give us the latest expertise on what we can do to better protect that.”
The number of boats that have capsized in the summer during high tide or rough conditions makes efficient rescue a matter of live and death, Sexton said.
“We will take a rescue boat out on the inlet with our dry suits on and the captain will say, ‘jump out,’” Sexton said. “Its good practice to catch the driver off guard. If someone goes into the water you need to be able to quickly turn around and know how to approach for a safe rescue.”
Along with taking classes, participants will hear from guest speakers from out of state who have expertise in specific fire control and rescue operations.
The conference opening ceremony will be Wednesday from 8 – 10 a.m. at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. The keynote speaker is Assistant Fire Chief Dave McGrail, from the Denver Fire Department, who will share his knowledge of fire ground operations, command, and control.
Other out of state guest speakers include Chief Dennis Rubin from the Washington D.C. Fire and EMS Department, who will discuss fire leadership and Rob Clemons from Prince William County Virginia Fire and Rescue Department who will talk about crew resource management.
“Fire service training is everything,” Sexton said. “To be able to get exposure from all these individuals ¬– who are all top notch trainers in their field ¬– it is valuable.”
Specific training for rural fire chiefs will also be covered. Sexton said volunteer firefighters that live in remote villages have a separate track of fire tactics they use when road access to certain areas is not available.
Nikiski Fire Department coverage includes the villages of Tyonek and Beluga across the Cook Inlet. Volunteer village firefighters and Nikiski firefighters worked together to save the village of Tyonek from a wildfire that sparked in late May, the same day as the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire.
On the last day of the conference are two events the community can participate in and watch. On Saturday, Sept. 27 is the Cameron Carter Memorial 3.43K Run at 9 a.m. It starts at the Kenai airport fire station. Carter was a CES paramedic and one of four who died in a helicopter crash in 2007. The race, which takes place on airport grounds, is 3.43 kilometers long to honor the 343 New York City firefighters who died on 9/11, Sexton said.
Following the run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. is the firefighters skills competition at the Kenai Fire Station 2 at the airport. The competition includes department teams throughout the state who compete in various timed course events.
“It is absolutely insane how good and fast some of the firefighters are,” Sexton said. “It is really fun to watch. There is friendly rivalries and pride on the line. Everyone has fun with it.”
Baisden said this conference, which takes place in different places throughout the state every September, has been a year in the making. Baisden is the President of the Alaska Fire Chiefs Association and is one of the conference organizers. Organizing a statewide conference costs upwards of $100,000 which is paid through state grants and corporate sponsors, he said.
“It costs a lot of money to put this on. Both state fire chiefs have a vested interest and are responsible financially,” he said. “I have been to a lot of conferences through the years and I can say what we have one here this year will be the best conference I’ve seen with the mix of training we have.”
The influx of 300 firefighters on the Kenai Peninsula brings an economic boost to hotels and restaurants, Tucker said.
“One of the reasons we have the conference in September is because it is after all the tourists have gone,” he said. “With hotels full and people going out to eat every night. It will be a nice jolt for our economy.”
Reach Dan Balmer at email@example.com