Alaska fire crews ship out to Lower 48 fires

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) One hundred Alaskan firefighters headed south Wednesday to help fight fires in the Lower 48.

According to an Alaska Fire Service spokesperson, the five 20-person crews are assisting on the 48,350-acre Pioneer Fire near Idaho City, Idaho.

The Alaskan crews are the Gannett Glacier and White Mountain crews, both of which are Type 2 Initial Attack teams, the Chugachmiut contract Yukon crew, and two Type 2 training crews, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks Wildland Fire Crew, and the BLM Alaska Fire Service’s North Star Fire Crew.

They joined the nearly 1,500 personnel already working the fire.

Beth Ipsen, the Alaska Fire Service spokesperson, says the Alaskan crews were sent down as our state’s fire season winds down, though it’s not over yet. She says the season is considered "over" when there are no more starts or there is a low probability of starts and no more significant growth on existing fires. "We're close, but not quite there," Ipsen said in an email. She said Northern Alaska is still very dry.

Ipsen said 80 fires continue to burn in Alaska, and that one, the Iniakuk Lake Fire, west of Bettles is still staffed. That lightning-caused fire still has three personnel monitoring its movement. That fire has burned 36,265 acres since it was sparked in late June.

Alaska’s fire season peaks earlier in the year that the Lower 48, and Ipsen says that allows Alaska to be able to help other areas even in a high fire year.

“We can send (crews) to help out with the Lower 48 because wildland fire relies heavily upon interagency cooperation, not just in Alaska, but in the Lower,” she said. “We have an earlier fire season than the Lower 48, we'll get boosts or smoke jumpers coming up here, some other hotshot crews like we did on the McHugh fire earlier this summer…and when our season starts to taper out, we'll send them down to the Lower 48 because their wildland fire season tends to pick up a little later.”

That doesn’t mean Alaska is without wildland fire protection. Ipsen says there are still smoke jumpers on hand in case new fires break out, or already-burning fires start to threaten structures.

The five crews sent out this week aren’t the only Alaskan firefighters sent to assist with out-of-state fires. The Chena hot Shot Crew is on the Copper King fire in Montana, and the Midnight Sun and Pioneer Peak Hotshots are on the Rail Fire near Unity, Oregon.

If the fire season intensifies in the Lower 48, Ipsen says some of the Type 2 emergency firefighters from Alaska’s villages could be mobilized to help as well. Alaska’s Preparedness Level for fire readiness is currently at a Level 1. The Lower 48 is at a Level 3 and could be raised depending on the fire intensity, she said. A level 5 is the highest level of fire preparedness.

So far this season, 521 fires have charred just under 500,000 acres in Alaska, which is under par for the state’s yearly average, which Ipsen says more often falls between 1 and 2 million acres.

Last year, 5.1 million acres burned across the state, including the Sockeye and Card Street fires, which burned homes and structures and prompted evacuations in Willow and Sterling. That was the state’s second-highest year, though the Lower 48 had a record number of acres burned in 2015.

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