Oregon trains National Guard crew

Airmen from the 173rd Fighter Wing recently spent five days of wildland fire training with the Oregon Department of Forestry in preparation for their role in assisting with the 2023 fire season.

Air National Guard Magazine featured a story about ODF firefighters lighting a controlled blaze during training for the 173rd Fighter Wing Airmen at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Adriana Scott)
(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Adriana Scott)

“We are tasked with training Guardsmen on Operations Plan Smokey,” said Jake Barnett, protection supervisor for ODF. He said this initial training consists of 32 hours of in-class and hands-on instruction. Airmen are ready to assist the state of Oregon if called up during emergencies and natural disasters. Operation Plan Smokey provides extra resources to the state from the National Guard via an interagency agreement between the Oregon Military Department and the ODF. Training covered fire behavior, tool use, and communications. The last day included a burn in sagebrush and tall grass. Oregon red-carded 20 new firefighters for the state, and Col. Lee Bouma, 173rd FW commander, said they trained an extra three crews this year.

Wildfire near Wickenburg burns hundreds of acres

Firefighters had an 870-acre wildfire burning south of Wickenburg, Arizona about 60 percent contained today; the Cloud Fire near Vulture Mine and Whispering Ranch roads started Thursday, according to the BLM.

State Forestry was responding with aircraft, engines, and hand crews. KJZZ reported that 75 firefighters from the BLM, Wickenburg, and Buckeye Valley were also working the fire.

12NEWS had video. Forestry officials said airtankers slowed the progress of the fire, which was burning in short, dense grass.

The fire started Thursday about 16 miles from Wickenburg.

Alaska sends hotshots and airtanker to Alberta

The Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection (DOF) has sent resources to the Canadian province of Alberta, where agency information officer Lily Coyle says they’re dealing with an unusually intense early wildfire season.

Tanker 544

“They declared a state of emergency over this past weekend,” Coyle told Alaska Public Media (PBS). “On Saturday they had over 100 wildfires spreading out of control. Their Premier Danielle Smith deemed it an unprecedented crisis.”

Aerial Fire Magazine reported that at least 29,000 Albertans have been forced from their homes in the north and central regions of the province. Fire managers in Alberta have made large resource requests for outside assistance, including the airtanker and hotshot crew from Alaska. The Northwest Compactstrong intergovernmental agreement known as the Northwest Compact allows Alaska and other states and provinces to request or share resurces internationally.

Considering Alaska’s delayed snowmelt, late spring, and recent widespread moisture, the DOF made available Airtanker 544 — a Conair Dash 8 – 400
AT Airtanker — and the Pioneer Peak Hotshots, both based in Palmer. Tanker 544 departed for Alberta on May 9. Pioneer Peak IHC has extensive experience in managing fires, and the crew has completed their required 80 hours of pre-season training. The 23-person crew left Tuesday, May 9 in a smokejumper aircraft.

“Alberta was a significant contributor to the Alaska response effort last season,” said DOF Chief of Fire and Aviation Norm McDonald. “Supporting their efforts this spring is an excellent example of not only national but the international cooperation it takes to manage fires during extreme conditions. As we are just beginning the Alaska fire season with our late breakup, we will continue to monitor fire behavior and our own fire protection needs.”

Pioneer Peak Hotshots
Pioneer Peak Hotshot Crew after completing their annual 80-hour spring training in front of Pioneer Peak in Palmer, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Pioneer Peak Hotshots

Coyle said Alaska fire agencies often send resources outside the state in the fall, but she said the spring deployment is very unusual. “This is the first time we’ve sent a crew to Canada in May,” she said. “Our late fire season, coupled with the early drought conditions that Alberta is facing — that just set us up for this pretty unprecedented situation.”

On the federal side, Alaska Fire Service public affairs specialist Beth Ipsen said no resources have yet been sent to Alberta, but the agency has two hotshot crews that will be finishing training this week and may be available for deployment.

Chris Wilcox named new chief for NPS Fire and Aviation Management

National Park Service (NPS) Division of Fire and Aviation Management has a new chief. Chris Wilcox, former chief for Fire Management with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), was named May 7 as the new chief for the position, previously held by Bill Kaage, who retired last summer. Chris is the first to hold the position as a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES).

Chris started in 1993 as a seasonal with the USFS Heber Hotshots in east-central Arizona. His qualifications included squad boss, saw boss, sawyer, and engine crewmember. Chris earned a BS in biology from Northern Arizona University in 1997 while still working seasonally for the USFS. In 1999 he detailed to the National Forests of North Carolina as a hotshot squad boss. In 2001, returning to Arizona, he hired on as the superintendent of the Heber IHC.Chris Wilcox

His first position with Fish and Wildlife began in 2003 when he was named assistant zone FMO for the state of Arizona. In that position, he coordinated with refuge managers to integrate fire management into the refuges’ goals and objectives. He next was hired as zone FMO in New Mexico, where he established a statewide FWS youth education and hunt program — with an emphasis on children with disabilities and terminal illnesses. He conducted the first prescribed fire in the White Sands Missile Range under the Department of Defense and served as developer and facilitator of the Dude Fire staff ride. Chris also was selected to participate in the Australia / New Zealand Fire Management Study Tour.

In 2009 Chris moved to NIFC in Boise and served in several FWS positions, including national fire operations program leader, the deputy branch chief for Operations, and then as chief for the Branch of Fire Management. As chief, he has served on various leadership groups, including the Interior Fire Executive Council, the Fire Management Board, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, and the NWCG Executive Board. He received the DOI Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his leadership of the wildland firefighting community during the global pandemic; he also coordinated an agreement with the Department of Labor that resulted in hiring 40 permanent apprentices to promote diversity within the next generation of FWS fire leadership. Chris also established a mental health and wellness position within the FWS Branch of Fire Management.

Chris lives in Boise with his wife Triniti and two daughters, Alyssa and Tristin. Chris and his family spend their free time rafting, camping, and enjoying other outdoor pursuits.

Dozens of fires burn across Alberta

Nearly 30,000 people have been asked to evacuate their homes under siege of dozens of wildfires across the western Canadian province; officials declared a state of emergency on Saturday with more than 110 active wildfires, according to a report today by the BBC.

More than 50 schools were closed on Monday morning, affecting over

2023 Alberta fires
2023 Alberta fires

10,000 students, said Mike Ellis, Alberta’s minister of public safety and emergency services. Some areas had evacuation orders lifted after scattered showers and light winds tempered the fires. About 964,000 acres have burnt since wildfires began over a week ago.

In northern Alberta, more than 80 homes were destroyed in rural areas including Fox Lake, John D’Or Prairie, and Garden River, and more than 3,700 residents in that area were evacuated. “It was pretty far from us, from where we live, but we could see all the smoke coming up and it was just getting worse by the minute,” said resident Johnette Blesse.

Meanwhile, according to the CBC, firefighters criticized cuts to Alberta’s aerial attack teams as the fires burn; a former rappeller says that rappel teams could have made the difference in the ongoing firefight.
Government budget cuts have left the province short-handed in wildfire suppression. “We could have been difference-makers,” said Jordan Erlandson, a former member of Alberta’s Rapattack team.Alberta wildfires dashboard

The program once had 63 firefighters stationed around the province — including at Edson, Fox Creek, and Lac La Biche — and these are communities now threatened by one of the busiest early fire seasons in provincial history.

The rappelling program was cut in 2019 by the United Conservative government.

Alberta rappellers

“They told us the program had been eliminated,” said former member Adam Clyne. “They just said budget.” A 2019 op-ed in the CBC News said, “As wildfire threat grows, UCP cuts to remote rappel team are a risky gamble,” and explained they saw the province’s plan as shortsighted.

“Against this backdrop of increasing wildfire risk and management concerns, the UCP government has announced cuts to its wildfire suppression program,” wrote author Mathieu Bourbonnais. “The proposed cuts and the rationale presented by the UCP government are short-sighted. Without doubt, these cuts will directly impact the safety and livelihoods of rural communities in Alberta. Among the immediate casualties is the Alberta Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program, which since 1983 has been the main line of defence for rural communities against wildfires that start in remote areas. Deployed provincially as nine crews of seven, the men and women in the program are trained to rappel from helicopters and aggressively contain fires while they still are small.”

Alberta Envoronment photo

The New York Times reported that about 24,000 people were out of their homes in the sparsely populated, largely northern areas of Alberta, with dozens of fires burning across nearly 1 million acres. The fire season, typically from March 1 to early October, already has tallied over 400 fires — an unusually high number. People have not forgotten the season of 2016, when fires burned from the forestland into the oil sands capital of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

That fire forced the evacuation of more than 90,000 people, destroyed more than 2,400 homes and businesses, and disrupted production at the United States’ largest source of imported oil. At more than 4 billion Canadian dollars, it remains Canada’s most costly disaster.

As was the case during the Fort McMurray fires, many of the current evacuees, a group that includes thousands of members of First Nations communities, have sought refuge in Edmonton, the province’s capital and second-largest city. This year’s fires are fueled by the same weather phenomena that caused the 2019 bushfires in Australia: GRIST Magazine reported that oil production was forced to halt after a state of emergency was declared this weekend.

The province, Canada’s largest producer of crude oil and natural gas, has discontinued production of the equivalent of 145,000 barrels of oil amidst the fires. And though recent rain showers have slowed the progression of some fires, storms could also bring lightning, according to Marc-André Parisien, a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service.

The Alberta wildfire status dashboard is [HERE].

Bill Gabbert wrote about the rappel program back in 2019.

Alberta fires evacuate thousands

UPDATE 05/06/2023:   Three wildfires burning near the boundary between British Columbia and Alberta have forced evacuation orders and an alert. Two of the fires are in the Peace River region, including the Red Creek Fire, covering 1,550 hectares (3,830 acres) northwest of Fort St. John, B.C., about 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) northeast of Vancouver.

CBC Canada reported that the evacuation order covers 61 homes in the area; Goodlow, B.C., and the surrounding region are also under evacuation orders ahead of the Boundary Lake Fire, which covers an area of 19 square kilometres (~4700 acres).

 Boundary Lake Fire in the Prince George Fire Centre. (B.C. Wildfire Service)
 Boundary Lake Fire in the Prince George Fire Centre. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Dozens of new wildfires were discovered across Alberta on Thursday amid high temperatures, dangerously dry conditions, and high winds. More than 10,000 people across Alberta are now affected by mandatory evacuation orders, according to a Global News Canada report.

Fire officials updated many Alberta Emergency Alerts throughout the day as the fires grew and threatened more properties.

An evening update from Alberta Wildfire said there were 72 active wildfires across the province — but in the hours after that bulletin, even more fires showed up on the government agency’s live dashboard. As of 11 p.m, it showed 79 fires, with 19 out of control; 25 were caused by humans, five by lightning — and the rest were still under investigation.

CBC Canada reported that one out-of-control fire has forced the evacuation of thousands of people from Drayton Valley and Brazeau County in west-central Alberta.

“Bring important documents, medication, food, water and supplies for at least three days,” town officials told 7,200 residents on its Facebook page late Thursday. “Take pets with you.”

The City of Edmonton has set up a reception centre for evacuees at the Expo

B.C. Wildfire Service mobile app
B.C. Wildfire Service mobile app — find it on the App Store or Google Play.

Centre in Edmonton. Bart Guyon of Brazeau County has been coordinating with the area’s fire chief to ensure county residents have the latest information and are able to evacuate swiftly. “It’s kind of like waking up in the middle of a nightmare,” Guyon said.

“Tactical evacuations are being done. This wildfire primarily affects oil and gas industry, but anyone within the area must evacuate,” the emergency alert said.

The evacuations in Brazeau County and Drayton Valley are the latest developments in a week that has seen a series of wildfires across central and northern Alberta. Many are burning out of control in hot, dry and windy conditions.

On Thursday, the fire in the Fox Lake area forced thousands of people from their homes. According to an update from Alberta Wildfire on Thursday afternoon, the wildfire covers about 4,400 hectares (~11,000 acres). Alberta Wildfire has forest area updates and fire data online, with maps and annual statistics on its Wildfire Status Dashboard website.