More Alaska fire crews headed to Lower 48

Posted: Friday, August 04, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Another five emergency crews from Alaska are heading for the Lower 48 to take their turn battling wildfires. The crews will join the more than 350 Alaskans who already are helping out.

They will be working near Missoula, Mont.

The crews cut trees and cleared brush Thursday to create a buffer zone at a Fairbanks park. That gave them a chance to familiarize themselves with one another before they're thrown in with other firefighters from around the nation.

The crews come from scores of villages around Alaska.

They will help battle blazes in what's shaping up as one of the worst fire seasons in U.S. history. Approximately 3.7 million acres have gone up in flames so far. That compares with the U.S. average of 2 million acres each year.

Conditions are hot enough and dry enough for a great deal more acreage to burn, officials said.

The Alaska crews will spend 14 days working on fires. That doesn't include travel time, which could take them to a number of places determined by emergency priority, said Mary Lynch, intelligence coordinator for the Alaskan Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks.

They'll return to their homes around the Alaska Interior after their time is up.

''You want people to rest. You want to be able to come home and pay bills,'' Lynch told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Rookie Anna Littlefish from the Upper Kalskag crew said she signed up to fight forest fires because she was looking for a summer job.

''There are no other jobs in Kalskag and I wanted to do something this summer,'' she said.

Her crewmate, Adrianne Kerr, was apprehensive about tangling with snakes, scorpions and ticks -- none of which are found in the Interior.

Kerr and her husband, Jeff, were working together as firefighters for the first time.

Jeff normally works for Hageland Aviation Services Inc. But to him, the travel time and overtime money plus time off to work fires makes it all worthwhile.

''Overall, for most of the crew, I'd say this is a good source of income because a lot of them don't have jobs,'' he said.

Crew boss trainee Frank One is like most of his crew and only has work for two- to three days at a time in his village.

One said he had been fighting fires Outside since 1974, the first year the federal Bureau of Land Management started recruiting villagers as firefighters.

''I like the trip down there and like to learn some different stuff,'' One said. ''When we go down, they have these big trees. It takes a squad to move them.''

While crew members often know each other because they live in the same village, Mike Butteri said he often hasn't met any of the people he'll be working with fighting fires.

''Usually you end up being pretty good friends by the end of the ordeal,'' Butteri said.

The Kalskag group is one of 65 crews that can be rotated to various locations during fire season, the interagency's Lynch said.

The Alaska Fire Service sends its employees to villages each spring to offer a refresher course to veterans and newcomers who need 40 hours of training to certify. They have to pass a test requiring them to carry a 45-pound pack.

''We hope to get all of the crews out'' fighting fires, Lynch said. ''It keeps everybody trained, qualified and experienced.''

Only 17 crews were used in Alaska this season to fight the roughly 336 fires that charred more than 700,000 acres.

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