Courtesy photo / Parker Anders
A Forest Service fire crew gets brief during an operation. Fire crews from Alaska are frequently deployed to the Lower 48 to help combat wildfires that are growing larger and closer to urban areas in many cases.

Courtesy photo / Parker Anders A Forest Service fire crew gets brief during an operation. Fire crews from Alaska are frequently deployed to the Lower 48 to help combat wildfires that are growing larger and closer to urban areas in many cases.

Into the fire: Alaska’s wildlands firefighters eye coming dry season

Alaska’s wildlands firefighters lend a hand where needed nationwide.

Grass fires and high winds after a sunny week in Juneau are harbingers of bigger and more powerful fires on the horizon as the wildfire season in Alaska and across the country draws near.

Wildfires in New Mexico and Colorado are already springing up this year, driven by dry conditions linked to human-driven climate change.

For many Alaska Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service firefighters — some full time, some who are qualified to firefight in addition to regular jobs — who will likely be called on to deploy to the Lower 48 later in the summer, it means another busy year, said Tim Mowry, a spokesperson for DNR.

“The crews will stay down there from mid-to-late July till mid-September depending on the fire activity. Same with the support staff,” Mowry said in a phone interview. “Some people stay down there till October. On a fire a few years back, I was in California till November.”

The last two decades have seen an increase in wildfires, said Eric Morgan, the USFS fire program manager for the Tongass National Forest. For example, according to the California state government, last year’s fire season in California alone destroyed 2.5 million acres, immolated more than 3,600 structures and killed three people, all while shrouding the West Coast in an eerie, orange shroud of smoke and ash.

“2000 was a rockin’ fire year for the U.S. The folks that have been in from 2000 to now have seen more fires than everyone previously,” Morgan said in a phone interview. “It’s the era of megafires.”

As a result, more and more often, assets from Alaska, including equipment, crews, and specialists, including support staff, often find themselves deployed south after Alaska’s fire season wraps up in mid-July, said Mowry.

“Last year we sent down two five-engine strike teams,” Mowry said. “We put them on barges, sent them down to Washington, and they ended up working for two months.”

First north, than south

For wildland firefighters in Alaska, the first priority has to be wildfires in Alaska, Morgan said. Happily, for teams in the Tongass, the risk is relatively low. Once the risk level dips below a certain point in the rainforest’s threat index, teams are released to the interior of Alaska.

“(The risk in the) Southeast is rarely if ever high. Southeast fires typically don’t get very big. Low spread rate, low spread potential,” Morgan said. “You look at the indices and the time of year. You look at the duff and field moisture. When those indices reach a certain point and they’re on the downhill slide, we send folks out.”

Duff is a word for the spongey undergrowth common through the Southeast. The Interior, located out of the Southeast’s damp climate and with more and more sun as the planet approaches the solstice, is more prone to large fires, said Matthew Thompson, a fire module leader and career firefighter with the Forest Service.

“The solstice is kind of the height of the fire season in Alaska because we get so much more light. It’s a short season but that’s a big factor — the solar heating and the wet, damp climate,” Thompson said. “When you’ve got 20 hours of daylight drying things out, you’ve got no relative humidity recovery.”

Once pastthe solstice, Mowry said, state and federal fire assets get redeployed south.

“We still make sure we don’t send everyone to the Lower 48,” Mowry said. “We keep enough staff in our offices around the state.”

Who gets sent where, and with what equipment, depends on the fire needs down south, Thompson said.

“It’s really wide open. We can go to Colorado, the northern Rockies. We’ve even gone to the East Coast when there were big fires in late fall in North Carolina,” Thompson said. “Every year, we’re going down there.”

Decisively engaged

When crews do go down, it’s to perform a variety of roles, from frontline firefighters in charge of digging, chopping and spraying water on the fire to stop the spread, to support personnel maintaining camps of hundreds or even thousands of firefighters, to specialists like aviation personnel.

“It all starts with the folks at the fire. They have a resource in mind that they want. It could be an engine module. It could be a hand crew. Once we figure out who’s on the roster, we start the logistical nightmare of getting everyone on planes to the right place,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of positions that are not on the front lines that just support everything that goes on in these large-scale fires.”

A hand crew is a 20-person crew led by a module leader with three squad leaders, Thompson said. It’s a standard unit, and gives the incident commanders flexibility in their deployments.

“If it’s a busy season, we’ll try to send one crew after the next, or send an engine down. Last year we sent seven crews or engine modules. If we had enough people willing to go on a hand crew, we sent one of those too,” Thompson said. “When I first started, we could expect to only go out on three assignments a year. But now, you could easily get five or six in a season.”

Alongside frontline crews, jobs like EMTs, logistics, operations and dispatch also need to be filled to keep the firefighters supported, Thompson said.

“When (people) hear of firefighters they think of smokejumpers. There’s so many more roles to play,” Thompson said. “There’s all these positions that people may not associate with fires but they’re needed to keep the machine running.”

Crews will transit down from Alaska to where they’re needed, Thompson said. The amount they work depends on the available daylight, but at the height of the season, it’s 16 hour days for frontline crews, Thompson said.

“One of the biggest things is just getting used to the changing climate. If we’re going from here to 110,120 degrees in southern Arizona or California, it takes a while for folks’ bodies to adjust,” Thompson said. “The smoke, too, that’s always there. We’re blessed up here with the clean air.”

Shrinking ranks

A big surge of recruits to federal firefighting careers in 2000 and 2001 after heavy fire seasons has seen many of those joins ascend to leadership positions or muster out, Morgan said. Mandatory retirement for USFS firefighters at 57 also puts a cap on those, Thompson said.

“Retention is not that good in the fire world, and the fires are getting bigger and more dynamic,” Morgan said. “We’re at this stage of trying to build the next era of leaders.”

Larger fires and longer seasons are putting increasing strain on firefighters who are still engaged as well, Thompson said.

“People usually go out for two weeks once they’ve shown up on the fire. Occasionally if things are really bad you may be asked to extend another week. They’re starting to shy away from that because the burnout and mental health is really coming to the forefront,” Thompson said. “The seasons have been getting longer. And there’s more of these fires occurring in urban areas, which require more resources to put out.”

Despite the difficulty, Morgan said, the fire season is an opportunity for a lot of the personnel deployed to meet qualifications that could be difficult to achieve without a lot of frontline experience, especially for firefighters who may want to transfer to other stations or advance careerwise.

“It’s all about training and taking advantage of a lot of training opportunities on these,” Morgan said. “There’s a lot of opportunities nationwide.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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