Alaska fire season cranks up

Bitter Creek Fire
Bitter Creek Fire, June 2, 2013 Alaska Division of Forestry photo

Alaska has about half a dozen large fires that have been active within the last week. The largest is the Doestock Creek Fire which has burned over 18,000 acres of mostly grass 30 miles southeast of Aniak. There was precipitation on the fire Sunday.

The Bitter Creek fire is threatening residences 34 miles southeast of Tok. The fire is torching and spotting, at least before it also received some precipitation Sunday.

BLM Smokejumpers Receive “Al Dunton Award”

The National Interagency Fire Center announced an award today.


BLM firefighters Ben Oakleaf and Chris Swisher have much in common.

They’re both BLM smokejumpers. They both worked on the Midnight Suns Interagency Hotshot Crew in Alaska. They’re both highly respected in smokejumping circles. They’re both described by their supervisors as having a great work ethic and outstanding attitudes. They’ve been good friends for about a dozen years, starting when they met while working as hotshots.

And they were both surprised when they were named winners of the “Al Dunton Award,” which honors the late BLM pioneer in fire and aviation management.

Chris Swisher

“It was a surprise,” says Swisher, who jumps out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. “I didn’t know anything about it until I was told that I won.”

“I didn’t even know I was nominated until the jumper manager called me into his office and told me. I was very surprised,” says Oakleaf, who is part of the Great Basin smokejumpers, based in Boise, Idaho.

Part of the reason Swisher and Oakleaf were nominated is due to their work in combining the first-year smokejumper training. For a dozen years, the Alaska and Great Basin rookie jumpers trained separately. That didn’t seem the best way to teach the ropes to the new jumpers, Swisher and Oakleaf thought.

“Combined rookie training was done in the past. There’s been talk about it through the years, about doing the training that way again,” Oakleaf says. “We both have great respect for the two BLM smokejumper bases. We thought combining the training would be a good thing to do.”

Ben Oakleaf

Smokejumper management agreed and Swisher and Oakleaf were given the challenging assignment to make it happen.

The combined rookie training took place in April of 2012 in Alaska. By all accounts, it was a huge success. Combined training is again scheduled for April of this year, in Idaho.

“They were analytical, deliberate, mutually respectful of one another’s opinions, and ultimately convincing that the timing was right to give this combined effort another shot,” says Hector Madrid, manager of the Great Basin smokejumpers. “They developed guidelines, the training syllabus, a logistics plan and selected a cadre that shared the same viewpoints about rookie training.”

The effort proved worthwhile, according to Bill Cramer, Alaska smokejumper manager.

“The end result was that we had a strong group of first-year jumpers who came ready to contribute. The training could not have been done any better,” he says.

Great Basin jumpers often help Alaska jumpers in the spring, the peak of the northern fire season. In turn, Alaska jumpers often “boost” firefighting efforts in the Lower 48 during July and August, when the fire season is busiest in the West.

Having the same training and familiarity with one another is a big advantage.

“The more we know each other and about each other, the more seamless it is when we integrate the crews,” says Oakleaf.

But it was more than the combined rookie training that distinguishes Swisher and Oakleaf. Their supervisors say the two excel in every aspect of the smokejumping program.

“He seeks challenges, he accepts responsibility, he always looks for ways to improve,” says Cramer of his colleague Swisher. “That’s what resonates with me. It’s not just what he did in 2012, but the way he continually performs his job.

“He’s humble, without reason to be,” Cramer adds. “From his perspective, he just shows up and tries to do his job the best way he can. He doesn’t think he’s anyone special.”

Madrid is equal in his praise of Oakleaf.

“Ben’s strength is that he leads by example. No matter his experience, he’s never been above or beyond doing a task. He has great firefighting and jumping skills. He’s the full package,” says Madrid. “His attitude is second to none. He’s never in a bad mood, never had a bad moment, no matter the situation.”

The “Al Dunton Award” was established last year. Dunton was a rookie smokejumper in Fairbanks in 1967. He managed the smokejumper base there from 1972 through 1984 and remained active in fire management throughout his career. Much of BLM’s success in fire management can be traced back to Dunton’s work and innovations. The award was established by the interagency smokejumper base managers and the National Smokejumper Association, with the support of Al Dunton’s wife, Mary, and other family members.

Last year’s BLM winner was Gary Baumgartner.

The respect level is high between the award recipients.

“On a personal note, (organizing) the combined rookie training was fun to do with Chris. We’ve been good friends now for a long time,” Oakleaf says.

“I think there are more worthy people than me,” says Swisher, “but I’m glad that Ben was chosen.”

Says Cramer of the two, “I wish we could put them in a copy machine and duplicate them. Of course, if we did, the rest of us might be out of a job.”


A rare winter wildfire in Alaska causes evacuations

OK, so it’s not officially winter yet, but often this time of the year the Palmer area of Alaska (map) about 40 miles northeast of Anchorage has snow on the ground. Not this year.

On Thursday a truck pulling a trailer crashed and burned on the Palmer-Fishhook Road near the Glenn Highway. Strong winds gusting to 50 mph pushed the fire through 200 acres of brush and grass and into nearby neighborhoods.

Firefighters and state troopers evacuated homes in the area and city officials established an evacuation center at the Palmer Senior Center.

More than 16 fire units responded, including trucks from Palmer, Anchorage, Butte, and Chugiak.

No homes burned, but one shed was consumed along with some propane tanks stored inside, causing what one nearby resident described as explosions, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Thanks go out to Nick

Arrest made in theft of equipment from Alaska hotshot crew

The Alaska base of the Pioneer Hot Shots and the Glacier Gannette crew near Wasilla has been broken into twice in the last four years. After the 2009 ransacking of the base during which most of the crew members’ vehicles were damaged and government equipment was taken from the building, a person was convicted of that break-in and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

In July, 2012 the facility was broken into again. This time there was not as much damage, but state equipment was taken, as well as personal items belonging to the crews and two crew members’ Toyota pickup trucks.

An article in The Frontiersman details an extremely vigorous investigation by Alaska State Troopers which ultimately led to the arrest of one person for the most recent break in. The Troopers found a security video from a nearby hospital that showed the break in, including a large U-Haul truck pulling up to the Department of Forestry Building. They also recovered a stolen GPS receiver that had tracked the thieves after the robbery, and after obtaining a search warrant found similar location tracking information on a stolen iPhone that was in possession of one of the suspects. The iPhone’s data showed the phone had been at the nine locations where a firefighter’s debit card had been used after the robbery.

It is a fascinating story… check it out at The Frontiersman.


Thanks go out to Kelly

Thieves hit Alaska fire crews’ base second time

For the second time in three years, thieves broke into the facility of crews working for the Alaska Division of Forestry near Wasilla. In 2009, the Pioneer Hot Shots and the Glacier Gannette crew returned from two-week fire assignments to discover that their base had been ransacked. Most of the 25 personal vehicles belonging to the firefighters had been broken into and damaged.

This time there was not as much damage, but state equipment was taken, as well as personal items belonging to the crews and two crew members’ Toyota pickup trucks.

More information is at the Anchorage Daily News.

Thanks go out to Cannon.

UAV used for Alaska wildfire

Here is a video of an unmanned aerial vehicle being used to gather intelligence about a fire in Alaska.



Earlier this month in Alaska, a 40-pound Insitu Scan Eagle saw duty fighting wildfires after dense haze grounded conventional aircraft. The UAV is operated by the University of Alaska, which according to university officials is the first entity other than NASA or the Department of Homeland Security allowed to fly an unmanned aircraft beyond the line of sight in civil airspace.

The Scan Eagle — which is Boeing’s best-selling aircraft right now — was able to fly low over the fires through the thick smoke. Infrared cameras allowed people on the ground tracking the fires to find hotspots and monitor the fire lines.