Two 20-person crews have returned to Missouri from a two week assignment, fighting wildfires in Alaska.
Timothy Perren, was the crew-leader for one of those crews and took the time to share some of the highlights of the exciting and rugged work his crew did on their assignment as they fought wildfire “North to the future” (Alaska’s state motto). Fighting fire in Alaska is very different, the terrain is rough, it is a different forest type—mostly black spruce with some aspen where these crews were—and staying alert for grizzly bears combined with a never-setting sun are challenges these firefighters don’t face at home.
Perren serves as a zone fuels specialist for Mark Twain National Forest—a type of wildland firefighter position that focuses on fire prevention and ecological restoration through prescribed burning. His qualifications also allowed him to be the crew boss for 19 other individuals that took time away from their day jobs to make the journey to assist in the national wildland firefighting effort. Multi-agency crews are gathered and dispatched from the Missouri Iowa Interagency Coordination Center (MOCC), operating from the Mark Twain National Forest Supervisor’s Office in Rolla, MO, throughout the year. As crews get sent out from MOCC to fight fires around the country, they are named in numerical order. Perren was in charge of MOCC #1, dispatched to Alaska at the same time as MOCC #2, the first two crews out the gate in 2019. Upon their return to Missouri, a third crew MOCC #3 was dispatched to Alaska as well.
Perren was the leader of MOCC #1 (crew boss), and he supervised three squad bosses, that then oversaw different operational functions of the crew. MOCC #1 consisted of eleven USDA Forest Service employees from Mark Twain National Forest and nine firefighters from Iowa that represented multiple municipalities in that state. MOCC #2’s crew boss was Matt Bowyer. Their team comprised of fifteen Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) employees, one Mark Twain NF employee, and four more firefighters from Iowa.
ASSIGNMENT 1 – Boundary Fire
MOCC #1 was assigned to the Boundary River Fire near Tok, AK. This was a large and complex (designated “Type 1”) fire with a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team managing it, along with other lightning-caused fires in the area at the time. Perren said, “Our first day on scene, we were assigned to Division Northway at the helibase and were flown in by three helicopters to collect and backhaul about 10,000 feet of hose and several Mark III Pumps and supplies.” That first day, they also they also worked with helitack personnel to cargo net most of the sling loads (bundles of equipment ready to be connected by a long line to a helicopter for transport). Perren said proudly about his crew, “We accomplished the mission in one operational period with just enough time to fly back to helibase before the aircraft was due to be grounded for maintenance—I knew we had a good crew for this assignment by the end of that first day.” The crew worked in that area for a few more days, cutting brush with chainsaws around remote cabins to make it easier for other crews to protect them from wildfire—what is known as structure protection.
ASSIGNMENT 2 – Kobe Fire
As the Boundary Fire began to reach containment, thanks to efforts of many wildland firefighters and assisted by periodic rain showers, MOCC#1 was reassigned to the Kobe Fire just north of the boundary of Denali National Park, near the small village of Anderson, AK. “This assignment required the crew to build a true Alaska fire camp, complete with shelter, firewood, fire pit, latrine, kitchen space for food serving, tables, chairs, water container racks and more….we even had to dig a tundra fridge to keep our three-day supplies of fresh food boxes cold,” said Perren.
Making a tundra fridge requires digging down about a foot and a half to reach the frozen permafrost and excavating a three foot by three foot hole, big enough to store a cooler with perishable food items and then using cardboard and soft tundra vegetation as the insulated lid. The tundra fridge, according to Perren, worked surprisingly well.
On the Kobe Fire, MOCC #1 worked on installing hoselays and pumps in order to better secure and mopup the fire perimeter. A hoselay is a term for multiple firefighting hoses being connected together, which makes an impromptu pipeline for moving water anywhere it is needed along a fire’s perimeter. The additional pumps assist in the transport of the water and help push it along the long lengths of hoses to where it eventually is needed to be sprayed on the ground—to douse flames and cool smoldering embers. Getting all the embers inside a fire’s footprint cooled off is needed to ensure that wind doesn’t kick up embers and start a new fire outside the contained area, and the process is referred to as “mopping up” the fire. MOCC #1 continued mopping up and carefully patrolling the area around the fire to look for smoldering “holdover” spot fires, from ember that may have been blown around, that are known to flare up many days after the wildfires initial growth. They referred to this process as “gridding in the green”.
MOCC#2 was assigned to the Kobe Fire, with Matt Bowyer as crew boss. Their duties were very similar to MOCC #1’s, and were working just one geographic unit (Division) away. MOCC #2 also responded to put out a new wildland fire that was just starting, when they first arrived, and were flown in by helicopter; so both crews got to experience Alaska wildland firefighting via chopper during their assignments.
UNIQUE CHALLENGES – Grizzlies and Daylight
“Luckily we didn’t see any grizzly bears during our assignment,” stated Perren. He said there were grizzly bears seen by other fire personnel on the Boundary River Fire while they were there and the crew’s bus driver spotted a grizzly on his way to pick them up one day. Certified shooters, personnel authorized to carry shotguns to prevent bear attacks, were in demand at times as a precaution for potential bear encounters. Perren continued, “We were issued some bear spray and we did for a time have a resource advisor assigned with us who was a USFWS employee and also certified as a shooter; and it was interesting for me to see a black weathered Remington 870 slug-gun, looking like standard-issued firefighting equipment and laying on top of a pile of backhaul hose, as I exited the A-Star Helicopter one day.” Perren did not hear of any actual issues with bears, but said it was comforting to know that the team had tools both to fight the fire and manage any wildlife issues.
Crewmembers on MOCC #1 did see several moose and other Alaskan wildlife. Perren said that they were lucky and mosquitos were not too bad during their assignment; but he heard stories about crews in other areas that experienced mosquito horror stories where the swarms were so bad it cut visibility to about 20 feet.
“It never got completely dark where we were,” remembered Perren.
Being that far north, the sun would just dip below the horizon this time of year; but even at midnight it wasn’t truly dark outside. “I never used a flashlight or any light the entire time I was in Alaska,” said Perren. He said that most crewmembers adjusted and were able to sleep, but constant light did have an effect on all of them to some extent.
TAKEAWAYS – meeting interesting people
“The stories of the people who live and work in Alaska was the most interesting thing to me,” stated Perren. The crew’s first bus driver, a local named Chris, had left Los Angeles in 1975 looking for something new. His story was that he made it just outside the limits of Tok, AK, near the end of the Alaska Highway, when he got distracted and ran off the road and totaled his VW Bus. He said he only had $200 to his name at that time and it was not enough to go further into Alaska or to get him back home. So he was “Broke in Tok” which is a common story of those traveling to Alaska to live or work. He finally got a job welding on the pipelines and highway projects although when hired he did not know anything about welding, except for one day of on-the-job-training. He now has a welding shop, Tok Welding, and two contracted school buses he uses for fire crew shuttles. He also builds and sells the Alaskan Wood Stove all across the state, which are used by many of the native villages in Alaska as well. He also builds and sell what he calls a Burner, which is a large metal trash incinerator that he sells mostly to the native villages for trash and waste disposal. Due to the permafrost, there are not widespread trash disposal landfills in the villages since you cannot dig thru the ice. Perren recalled, “I really enjoyed talking to Chris—he was very informative about the cultures of both Western and Native that are shaping Alaska.” Perren said getting to meet so many people with unique and interesting stories and share stories about living in Missouri is probably the best part of going on a wildland firefighting assignment like this one. He continued, “I look forward to going out again in the future and am thankful to have been part of such a great crew on such a challenging and interesting assignment.”