Alaska fire crews mobilized to the lower 48

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Fire crews line up to board a National Interagency Coordination Center aircraft at the BLM Alaska Fire Service on Fort Wainwright Friday, July 24, 2020. Photo by Tim Mowry, Alaska Division of Forestry.

Three Alaska wildland firefighting crews traveled to the Lower 48 states on Friday to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in the western United States.

The three crews – the BLM Alaska Fire Service Midnight Sun Hotshots, Chena Hotshots, and the Alaska Division of Forestry White Mountain Type 2 Initial Attack Crew – boarded an airliner at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks Friday morning. The aircraft came up to Alaska from the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho Thursday to transport the crews to Boise, where they will be quickly assigned to one of a multitude of wildfires burning in the western U.S.

“It’s always sad leaving Alaska but it will be good to get down there,” Iris Sager, crew superintendent for the Chena hotshot crew, said.

Alaska’s fire season was slowed by abundant and widespread rainfall the past five weeks that has dampened wildfire danger across the state. Because of this, Alaska’s wildland fire agencies have made many resources available to assist with the national firefighting effort while keeping adequate firefighters and aircraft in Alaska to handle any fire activity here.

The mobilization of firefighting resources to the Lower 48 is an annual tradition, similar to Alaska importing firefighters and aircraft from the Lower 48 to assist with wildfires here. Firefighters from Alaska travel to the Lower 48 almost every year to help other agencies battle wildfires after the Alaska fire season winds down, usually in mid- to late-July.

The three crews that departed Alaska on Friday totaled 62 firefighters and will add to the 60 other Alaska firefighting personnel that are already working in the Lower 48. One other crew – the Division of Forestry’s Pioneer Peak Hotshots – flew south last week and is working on the Cedar Fire in Nevada.

In addition, 13 Alaska Smokejumpers are in the Lower 48 working, as well as multiple other personnel filling positions such as dispatchers, heavy equipment managers, engine bosses and division supervisors.

Three more Division of Forestry crews – the Gannett Glacier, Tanana Chiefs, and Yukon Type 2 initial attack crews – are scheduled to fly to the Lower 48 early next week.

Given the fact that Alaska’s wildland fire season has been very slow this season and crews have been relegated to working on fuels reduction projects and other project work the past several weeks, firefighters welcomed the opportunity to head south to work on actual fires.

“We’ve spent less than 20 days on fires this summer,” White Mountain crew superintendent Owen Smith said as he waited to board Friday’s flight. “Everybody is ready for an assignment.”

As of Friday, a total of 309 fires had burned an estimated 178,025 acres in Alaska this summer, which is well below the approximately 650,000 acres that burns in a typical fire season.

Barring any major drying event in Alaska over the next month or two, crews will likely remain in the Lower 48 until fire season in the western U.S. dies down, which isn’t typically until September or October.

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
BLM Alaska Fire Service fire specialist Tasha Shields hands crew members bag lunches prior to them boarding a National Interagency Coordination Center jet at Fort Wainwright, Alaska Friday, July 24, 2020. Photo by Tim Mowry, Alaska Division of Forestry.

Firefighters wore facemasks as they lined up to board the plane on Friday at Fort Wainwright. BLM Alaska Fire Service workers, also wearing facemasks, handed each firefighter a bagged lunch as they boarded the flight to Boise.

While the increase in COVID-19 cases in Alaska and across the U.S. is a concern, it’s something the crews and other Alaska firefighting personnel have been dealing with since the season started in April. Agencies and crews have COVID protocols in place to help prevent the spread of the virus and each crew was traveling with at least three days of personal protective equipment  such as facemasks and hand sanitizer.

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Chena Hotshots arrive in Boise, Idaho July 24, 2020. NIFC photo.

“I think it would be harder if any of us had families and didn’t live by ourselves,” Smith said in reference to mobilizing to the Lower 48 during the pandemic. “It definitely makes it interesting.”

Returning personnel will follow Alaska state and local health mandates addressing testing and quarantining upon return from their Lower 48 assignments. In some cases, personnel will spend days off in the Lower 48 instead of returning to Alaska in between fire assignments.

Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Midnight Sun Hotshots arrive in Boise, Idaho July 24, 2020. NIFC photo.
Alaska fire crews mobilized to lower 48 firefighters
Alaska fire crews arrive in Boise, Idaho July 24, 2020. NIFC photo.

From the BLM Alaska Fire Service

Pioneer Peak Hotshots prepare for the fire season

Pioneer Hotshots
The Pioneer Hotshots, April, 2020. Behind them is their namesake, Pioneer Peak, in the Chugach Mountains. Photo courtesy of the crew.

The Pioneer Peak Interagency Hotshot Crew has completed their annual critical refresher training and is ready to fight fire. Most Hotshot crews are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, or NPS, but Pioneer Peak, based in Palmer Alaska northeast of Anchorage, is one of three that are part of state organizations. The others are Alta and Lone Peak in Utah. The only county crew is Rio Bravo in Kern County, California. (The complete list is here.)

The text below was posted April 24 by Pioneer Peak along with the photo on their Facebook page.  It is used here with permission:

“The 2020 Pioneer Peak Hotshot Crew! We’ve just finished our 2 weeks of critical training. You won’t see this crew socially distancing from each other while we train. We will train as we fight and we will be fighting together as one family unit. It’s the only safe way to do our job effectively. We’ve implemented new SOP’s into our program so we don’t help the spread of this virus while in public settings.

“A lot of sacrifices are being made by our folks and their families to make this happen and they really need your support. We will keep our distance from the general public and we will wear masks if we enter public spaces like gas stations or grocery stores. We’re also disinfecting our rigs and facilities twice daily. Those are just a few examples. Our hand washing skills are also on point these days! Thank You for the support!”

Tour of a Hotshot Crew’s fire camp in Alaska

Chena Hotshots fire camp Alaska wildfire
Max Ryan of the Chena Hotshots gives a tour of the crew’s fire camp. Screenshot from the video below.

Since firefighters in Alaska are often based far from roads they may establish camps where crews can be self-sufficient for days or weeks at a time, resupplied by helicopters or paracargo. In this video produced August 1, 2019 by the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service, Chena Interagency Hotshot Max Ryan gives a tour of the crew’s fire camp on the Hadweenzic River Fire at the Cornucopia Complex about 20 miles northeast of Beaver. He explains how they store their food to protect it from bears and use permafrost to chill their perishable items.

Incident Commander addresses issue of motorists driving through intense wildfire

The Swan Lake Fire has burned over 162,000 acres south of Anchorage

flames fire Sterling Highway
Driving along the Sterling Highway, August 26, 2019.

The Swan Lake Fire, ignited by lightning on June 5, is being managed but not fully suppressed on the Kenai Peninsula 28 air miles south of Anchorage, Alaska. On August 17 it spread south across the Sterling Highway and has now grown to over 162,000 acres.

Map Swan Lake Fire August 30, 2019
Map of the Swan Lake Fire, August 30, 2019. Perimeter provided by the Incident Management Team. Map compiled by Wildfire Today.

The Sterling Highway, Alaska Route 1, is a major thoroughfare that goes south from Anchorage down the Kenai Peninsula to Sterling, Soldotna, and Homer. During the night of August 25 some motorists on the highway found themselves driving past a crowning timber fire that was approaching the highway with what looked like 50 to 75-foot flames that were in some cases very close to the road. Some drivers said traffic alternated between slow rubber-necking and then rapid acceleration where flames were near, adding another variable to the smoke and dodging construction barriers.

Warning — the video below has strong language.

😱🔥 Swan Lake 🔥 😱sorry for the F bombs buuut we were 😱!! the Peninsula is still burning!! DRIVE SAFELY!!! from r/alaska

Marty Adell Incident Commander Swan Lake FireAfter travelers reported on social media some of their experiences driving past the flames, the Incident Commander of the Swan Lake Fire produced a video to shed some light on the incident. He explained the conditions on the highway were “constantly monitored” for fire and smoke hazards. He said at one point they closed the highway but before they could completely sweep that section some travelers were still in the area with active fire.

McKinley Fire burns 50 structures south of Talkeetna, Alaska

McKinley Fire Alaska Parks highway
A smoke plume from the McKinley Fire burning along the Parks Highway is seen from the highway on Sunday, August 18. Photo by Maureen Clark/Alaska Division of Forestry.

(UPDATED at 8:43 a.m. PDT August 20, 2019)

From the Incident Management Team

Calmer winds Monday helped slow the spread of the McKinley Fire as firefighters continued their efforts to protect buildings and infrastructure.  An evacuation order for the area along the Parks Highway from Mileposts 82 to 91 remains in effect.

The Alaska Type 2 Interagency Incident Management Team assumed management of the fire Monday evening.  The addition of a dozen engines from Fairbanks and two crews from the Lower 48 in the next 24 hours are expected give a good boost to the firefighting effort. With the additional resources, fire managers will be adding a night shift to patrol the subdivisions in the fire area.

The McKinley Fire, which began Saturday near Milepost 91 of the Parks Highway is estimated at 3,012 acres.  Fueled by north winds gusting to 35 miles per hour, it quickly moved south on Sunday, burning along both sides of the Parks Highway corridor for 7 miles. An estimated 50 structures were destroyed by the fire.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety, State Fire Marshal and Alaska State Troopers are working with the Alaska Division of Forestry and Matanuska Susitna Borough to get a better estimate of structures burned and determine how many were residences. The State Fire Marshal’s Office and Alaska State Troopers are working to account for persons in the evacuation area. If you know of persons who may be unaccounted for please contact the Matanuska-Susitna Borough call center at 907-861-8326.

Here is a link to a map showing the fire perimeter and evacuation areas, updated August 19, 2019.

(Originally published at 2:44 p.m PDT August 19, 2019)

The McKinley Fire along the Parks Highway in Alaska burned at least 50 structures Sunday afternoon as firefighters and other emergency responders worked furiously to evacuate and rescue residents threatened by the fire.

The fire is 19 miles south of Talkeetna near Milepost 88 on the highway. (see map below)

Alaska Division of Forestry and Matanuska-Susitna Borough personnel are still working to account for residents who chose not to evacuate their homes or go to an evacuation shelter. Forestry, borough and Red Cross officials are working to determine how many structures were lost but specific details about structures that burned are not currently available.

Driven by strong north winds, the fire jumped from the east side of the Parks Highway to the west side at around 6 p.m. Sunday, prompting immediate evacuations on both sides of the highway from Mileposts 82 to 91.

The Parks Highway was closed at milepost 71.25 on the south and the Upper Susitna Senior Center on Helena Avenue at approximately milepost 98.5 on the north. The highway remained closed as of 11 p.m. There was no timetable for when the road will be reopened at the time of this report.

Map location McKinley Fire Talkeetna Alaska
Map showing the approximate location of the McKinley Fire south of Talkeetna, Alaska at 4:52 a.m. local time August 19, 2019. Map by Wildfire Today.

The latest size estimate on the fire was approximately 1,800 acres as of 10 p.m. Sunday.

Evacuation shelters have been established north and south of the Highway closure. The shelter on the south end is located at the Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla and the shelter on the north end is at the Upper Susitna Senior Center at approximately Mile 98.5.

The fire started Saturday afternoon when the wind blew a tree onto a power line near Milepost 91. The fire grew to about 150 acres overnight and burned up to the highway but remained east of the highway. That changed late Sunday afternoon when strong winds and warm, dry conditions resulted in extreme fire behavior that prevented suppression efforts and forced firefighters to focus their efforts on evacuating residents and protecting structures.

A Type 2 Incident Management Team from Alaska will be assuming command of the McKinley Fire on Tuesday. Two more incident management teams from the Lower 48 are en route to take over management of the Deshka Landing and Swan Lake Fires.

With the increase in wildfire activity in South-central Alaska the past two days, Forestry is also bringing up multiple other resources from the Lower 48 to assist with containment of fires. Ten hotshot crews are traveling to Alaska and should arrive Monday afternoon. Those crews will be split among the three fires listed above. Two large air tankers and four water-scooping aircraft are also en route.

McKinley Fire Alaska Parks highway
A portion of the McKinley Fire, Sunday, August 18, 2019 after the fire burned through the area. Photo by Maureen Clark/Alaska Division of Forestry.

Most of the information above provided by Alaska Division of Forestry.