Saving the last frontier
Fighting a half a million-acre fire along Alaska’s Yukon River
By Eileen Persike
“The fire itself, the largest that I had under my command, was just shy of 600,000 acres.” Jim Grant, U.S. Forest Service
It has been a hot, dry summer in the western United States. Daily reports of forest fires pervade the national news; California, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Idaho. One state that may not get a lot of air time is Alaska, which, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center has seen a total of 743 fires burn more than 5 million acres this year.
Helping to fight those fires were several local National Forest crews. Jim Grant is a Forest Fire Management Officer for the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. He recently returned from his job as Incident Commander of the Eastern Area Type 2 team, working to save a remote Alaskan Indian village about an hour’s flight north of Fairbanks along the Yukon River, called Tanana.
“The fire itself, the largest that I had under my command was just shy of 600,000 acres,” Grant said. “There were seven fires, some burned together. There were about 500 structures threatened. That included the village and up and down about 110 miles of the Yukon River and about 50 miles where the Tanana River joined the Yukon.”
The Incident Management team, of which Grant is the Commander, is made up of 42 people; the Eastern Area covers 20 states. That includes a finance section, operations section, planning and logistics. Then there are components such as a chief in each section and a leader in each unit, safety officers and liaison officers.
“We manage the incident and the fire fighters. We call in crews, helicopters, equipment, tankers-whatever I feel is needed to contain the fire,” he said, “Our team is right around 400 people, including Medical units, security, law enforcement. And that’s one incident; there are multiple teams like this, thousands of fire fighters.”
The firefighting crews come from across the country, from agencies like the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, state agencies, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Normally, the teams bring their own vehicles and modes of transportation, but because there were only about 20 miles of roads and their location so remote, Grant’s team contracted with the people in the village for the use of their boats, trucks, ATVs, cars and even bicycles to use during their 21-day stay in Tanana.
The land, he said, is a lot of tundra and black spruce and tamarack, very much like the swampy woods in the McNaughton area. But the ground is about 18 inches of spongy moss covering permafrost. The spongy moss was also burning along with the trees and vegetation.
“It was extremely dry; no moisture even in the swamps. When fire gets established it wasn’t just creeping fire, it was ground fire, and it really got going,” Grant recalled. “The moss burns- burns until it reaches permafrost.”
The fire, but more importantly the smoke forced the evacuation of about 140 of the village’s 200 residents; they were gone for more than a month. The smoke created additional challenges for the Incident team when it came to getting food and supplies delivered.
“It took upwards of five days to get deliveries; sometimes it was too smokey to fly, too smokey to go by boat…so we wait. And we improvise,” Grant said. “We had water and meals ready to eat, MREs – we were not starving by any means.”
Grant has been with the Forest Service for thirty years. Asked if his most recent assignment was also the most remote, he gave it a moment of thought.
“I’ve been in 41 of the lower 48 states, fighting fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, you name it,” he said. “Yes, Alaska is the most remote, as well as parts of Idaho.”
Grant explained the ‘national planning level’ system as it concerns wildfires. Earlier in the week, it was level four. By mid week the planning level had been increased to five, which is the highest, and means ‘all hands on deck.’ Although his team had just returned from fighting fires in Alaska, Grant said he was busy getting his Incident Management Team prepared to head out again.
“More than likely, once I get the team back on the board as available, we’ll be picked up someplace,” he said. “California is really burning and we have several crews out there from Wisconsin right now, and a 20-person crew to Wyoming and another in Idaho, others in Montana.”
Maybe not just another day at the office for most people, but for the Incident Commander of the Eastern Area Type 2 team, it’s to be expected.
“This is pretty typical the last ten or fifteen years,” according to Grant. “In my 30-year career, I can’t recall not be away in July or August.”