Across Wild Alaskan Terrain, Firefighters Pick Their Battles

Jul 23, 2015
Originally published on July 23, 2015 6:14 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As firefighters battle blazes in California, parts of Alaska are also burning. Nearly 5 million acres have caught fire since last month. Nearly 300 fires are burning. But here's what's most striking about Alaska. Only 22 of those fires are actually being fought. In Alaska, firefighting is approached much differently. NPR's Nathan Rott went to see why.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The phones start ringing in the dispatch room at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks around 9 a.m.

MEGHAN LUKE: Nice - blue skies, good deal.

ROTT: That's when the firefighters, some stationed hundreds of miles away, start calling in on their satellite phones to let the folks back at home base, like dispatcher Meghan Luke, know how they're doing and what they need.

LUKE: 90 QBs, 12 cans coffee - most important.

ROTT: There are 308 active wildfires burning in Alaska on this day and only about 1,000 firefighters out in the woods fighting them. This call is from one of the smaller ones, the Kalka fire. It's about 10 acres in size, burning in a bend at the Yukon River, and it has eight people on it. Smoke jumpers have parachuted in from above. That's about as good of an acreage-to-firefighter ratio as you'll find in all of Alaska. Just down the river, a 25,000 acre fire has three people on it - three total people for 25,000 acres. In California, a fire like that would likely have 3,000 people on it.

KENT SLAUGHTER: It's just the reality of what we have up here.

ROTT: This is Kent Slaughter, a manager for the Alaska Fire Service.

SLAUGHTER: There's several hundred miles between fires, easily. And we've got fires that are several hundred thousand acres in size.

ROTT: So, Slaughter says, it's impossible to put them all out. Instead, they pick their battles. But the 100,000-plus-acre fire that's burning in the middle of nowhere - do its natural thing and burn. The 10-acre fire that's 15-or-so air miles from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, like the Kalka fire, well, it gets eight smoke jumpers. Slaughter says it's not an easy calculation to do, and it's far harder when you consider the logistics that go on behind the scenes of fighting fire in Alaska.

For example, that resource order you heard - the coffee and QBs, which are containers of water - well, it also included five roles of fiber tape, four boxes of sugar, three rolls of plastic wrap, two chainsaws and - well, you get the idea - a lot of stuff, all of which needs to be found in rows and rows of boxes at a neighboring fire cache.

ROTT: It's like a giant Sam's Club.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: Where hoses and pumps are cleaned, pulaskis and shovels sharpened, chainsaws tested before being packaged and loaded into planes. Where they'll sometimes get fit with parachutes for air drop delivery to fires without runways for landing spots. At other fires, like the Aggie Creek fire which is also threatening the Trans-Alaska Pipeline about an hour north of Fairbanks, supplies are being moved back and forth by a helicopter. It sets down a cargo net of dirty hose in a field near a makeshift fire camp where the tents are covered in black plastic to block the near 24-hour Alaskan daylight. In other parts of Aggie Creek, there is road access, albeit bumpy dirt roads off of a somehow bumpier two-lane highway. The fire's Incident Commander, Richard Nieto, well, he isn't complaining. Nieto was a smoke jumper in Alaska in his younger years.

RICHARD NIETO: I was prepared for some real Spartan conditions. And no doubt about that, so when we came out here, I was - this was like the Ritz-Carlton to me when you have a road system and you get that as opposed to how normally you would get.

ROTT: For an example of what you'd normally get, head a hundred miles or so west to the Tanana area. Though, getting there can be a bit of a pain. There's no road, and when there's smoke in the air, as there has been for much of the, oh, last four weeks, you can't use aircraft. How, then? How about by boat? Firefighters have been protecting structures and villages around here by patrolling the banks of the Yukon and Tanana rivers using hired skiffs and rafts. They've even used a hovercraft to put hoses and pumps near houses up and down the river, plumbing more than 70 miles of Yukon River. And all of that stuff, all of those people, well, eventually, everything needs to come back, get fixed, cleaned, rested and ready for the next time out. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Fairbanks, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.