Alaska fire crews join shuttle search effort

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Five Alaska firefighter crews will fly to Texas Monday to help find pieces of the shuttle Columbia.

The group will scour the briars and brush of eastern Texas as they follow a portion of the shuttle's descent path. The shuttle broke up on its return to earth Feb. 1.

The 20-person emergency crews will use an approach similar to their methodical system for uncovering hot spots after a fire.

Firefighters from Delta Junction, Tok, Ruby, Hughes and Koyuk will be spending about two weeks in Texas to assist in the search.

Delta Junction fire management officer Al Edgren said it wasn't hard to round up firefighters interested in helping.

''Just to be a part of it, I think, is a pretty unique experience,'' Edgren said.

Firefighters will look for shuttle pieces as small as a quarter. So far, searchers have uncovered about 14 percent of the shuttle, said Deryl Jevons, an incident information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

As the search for clues and shuttle debris continues, the federal government has turned to emergency fire crews in effort to spell the state employees, highway patrol and volunteers who began the search.

Since mid-February, an average of 3,000 searchers a day have covered more than 103,000 acres, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site.

The system used to mobilize the firefighters is similar to the method used during a major fire or emergency. Increasingly, firefighters have been asked to help with disasters such as earthquakes or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Edgren said.

Still, next week's assignment is a rare call, said Jim Couckuyt, an interagency resource representative from the Alaska Division of Forestry, who will join the group.

Using Doppler radar, investigators have identified a nearly 200-mile swath of debris. Firefighters are now tracing that line by foot, searching the area within a mile on each side.

''It's pretty much just a 100 percent search,'' Jevons said.

One Environmental Protection Agency representative and one NASA representative accompany each crew. FEMA is coordinating the search.

Over the course of a 12-hour day, each firefighter searches about three acres of land. Currently, 191 crews are working on the search at four different camps.

Alaska's firefighters are headed to a camp near Hemphill, a rural east Texas town of about 1,100, near the Louisiana border. While Alaska's teams are expected to return before the end of the month, NASA indicated the debris search will continue through April, Jevons said.

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