July 6 Voice of the Times on firefighting efforts around the state

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Alaskans should be thankful for the noble effort being made by more than 1,000 mostly young men and women who are battling blazes across the state.

They are the smokejumpers, the hotshots and emergency firefighters. They parachute from airplanes, jump from helicopters, chop down trees, cut brush, set backfires and sometimes run up mountains carrying heavy packs and Pulaski fireaxes. Similar thanks should go to the helicopter pilots and fire retardant bomber crews who support them.

At this time of year we often see fire crews in news photos and television footage, usually in their yellow slickers, looking dirty and sweaty but determined. They are well-trained, in excellent physical condition and well-grounded in safety. That's essential because wildfire fighters routinely face danger in places where they could easily get into trouble.

During their occasional rest breaks, the teams flop on the ground exhausted and sometimes dine on a steady diet of ham sandwiches and military Meals Ready to Eat (better known as MREs).

About two-thirds of the firefighters are Alaskans. The rest come from Outside. The elite corps are the smokejumpers, who parachute into blazes in groups of eight. Next in terms of training and experience are the hotshots, who are organized into 20-person teams, and the balance of the front-line firefighters are the emergency firefighter teams, each with 16 members.

Alaska has 65 smokejumpers and four hotshot teams: the Tazlina Hotshots and three Fairbanks-based teams, the Midnight Sun Hotshots, the Chena Hotshots and the Denali Hotshots. The state also has 73 emergency firefighter crews, including 55 from towns and villages in fire-prone areas of the state. Each of the village crews is hired by a crew boss, who is chosen by the village. In some villages, firefighting is the largest source of wages each year.

Andy Williams, spokesman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, reports that the firefighters take pride in their jobs, with many units creating their own flags and emblems. He said the Alaskans are especially well suited to the work, both here and in the Lower 48 where many will go to fight blazes when the fire season ends here. He said the Alaskans are recognized Outside as self-sufficient and experienced at working and surviving in the wilderness.

In their courage and commitment, the firefighters are much like the others who put their lives on the line as part of their jobs -- members of the military, full-time and volunteer firefighters and police officers.

Our thanks to all. -

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