Alaska Division of Forestry: Dealing with the Coronavirus on the Last Frontier

Following a year in which 719 wildland fires burned 2.58 million acres, with several regions setting new records for high temperatures, low rainfall and fuel burnability characteristics, the Alaska Division of Forestry faces another daunting year, further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, more than 5,000 firefighting personnel, including 122 crews, from 49 states, Puerto Rico, and several Canadian provinces answered the call to help battle wildfires on the Last Frontier. The Alaska National Guard was mobilized and provided aviation, traffic control, and security services on various incidents statewide. Crew and staff mobilization centres were opened at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses to facilitate the movement of resources to incidents around the state. But this year could see a very different scenario in an era of social distancing and quarantines.

To explain how this will all work, Alaska Division of Forestry (DOF) Public Information Officer Tim Mowry took time from a hectic schedule to discuss how the DOF will handle this developing situation.

The Lay of the Land

“The Division of Forestry (DOF) is one of three suppression agencies in Alaska, the others being the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), both of which are federal agencies,” Mowry explained. “USFS in Alaska is a much smaller player than in the Lower 48 states because we only have two national forests. One is the Tongass National Forest, which is a rainforest in southeast Alaska, and the Chugach National Forest, which is a coastal forest. Neither of them gets much fire activity, so we don’t have a huge number of USFS resources. Most of the suppression and prevention is done by the state and the AFS.”

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of territory to cover.

“DOF has about 155 million acres in the state protection area and the AFS has about 191 million acres. DOF handles most of the road network and AFS handles most of the roadless, rural parts of the state. DOF tends to deal with the fires in the populated areas along the roads, while AFS takes care of the fires in the rural village areas.”

And as Mowry pointed out, cooperation is the name of the game. “It’s very interagency up here, more so than in the Lower 48, with both the AFS and DOF sharing resources. We bring up a couple of air-tankers, they bring up four scoopers, and each agency has helicopters. We have seven areas around the state for fire protection and they have three different zones, plus the military zone. We are much more spread out than they are. Our offices are spread around the state, while AFS is concentrated in Fairbanks, at Fort Wainwright’s Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, with one remote base out in Galena. We share resources, we share crews. If someone puts an order in, the crew dispatched could be state or federal. It’s a system that’s worked really well.”

But the composition of the workforce has changed over the years. “AFS has two Hotshot crews and a Type 2 training crew. DOF has a Hotshot crew, 2 Type 2 IA (Initial Attack) crews, and 2 IA contract crews from a couple of different Native Associations. We used to have about 70 Type 2 crews from rural villages, but that number has dwindled to about 10 due to stricter health considerations on the federal side and the fact that there just aren’t as many people fighting fires because there’s no guarantee on how much work a village crew is going to get, so people take other jobs. AFS has gone to 3 contract crews this year. We call them EFF (Emergency Fire Fighting) crews that can be hired for emergency firefighting. For a long time, they were the backbone of our firefighting force, but that has diminished. They’re Type 2 crews, so they’re mopping up, not doing an initial attack.”

Then there are the massive amounts of resources to the south if Alaska’s fire season heats up. “In busy fire seasons, we rely on the Lower 48 for resources. Last year we were fortunate that the Lower 48 didn’t have a busy fire season because we brought up over 5,000 people.”

The Situation in the Air

Air assets come from a number of different sources, as Mowry explained. “We bring up two Conair air-tankers – one is based in Fairbanks and another down in Palmer. We have four Fire Boss aircraft that AFS will bring on. Each of our seven areas has an Exclusive Use Type 3 helicopter assigned, and AFS has one Exclusive Use Type 3 helicopter for each of their zones. We can also bring up Call When Needed air-tankers, which we’ve done in the past. As part of the Northwest Compact (a mutual-aid agreement between the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan) we can get resources if they’re needed, mostly in the form of air-tankers, sometimes scoopers and even rapattack (firefighters who are deployed by helicopter to initial attack incidents where remote access would unreasonably delay the response by other methods), though it has to be a pretty busy fire season for that to happen.”

With all the lakes and rivers in Alaska, it’s a scooper paradise.

“Scoopers are a very useful tool. Conair’s 580 tankers are a great tool for what we do here. I think Conair is going to swap out one of their 580 tankers this year for a Q400 to see how that works in Alaska. They are a slightly faster version of the 580 and are more fuel-efficient and can carry a bigger load.” 

Next-generation tankers that are commonly used in the Lower 48 aren’t necessarily suited for Alaska. “The problem we have with the larger air-tankers is that they burn up fuel rather quickly, and for what we’re doing in these remote areas, it can be a long haul from the base to the fire. We’ve got one remote area out in McGrath and big air-tankers can burn through that fuel supply in a day. We ran into that in 2015. We have four tanker bases spread around the state: one in Fairbanks at Fort Wainwright, one in Palmer, one down near Tok, and one down on the Kenai Peninsula.”

The difference in fire season starts also has a bearing on when those air-tankers may be needed. “Alaska’s fire season tends to be earlier than the western states, so it officially runs from about April 1st, when we will require burn permits, until early- to mid-July, when wetter weather moves in. The AFS base at Galena will man up about June this year. Then we break our folks free to go down to the Lower 48 to work down there until there isn’t any more work. We can do that with our contract tankers as well.

“It’s been a pretty long winter here, with a lot of late snow up north in the Interior in March, and we’ve still got a lot of snow on the ground here. We’ve had one small grass fire down near Homer. It’s still pretty wet, pretty cold, but that can change quickly here.”

The New Rules of Engagement

As with fire agencies in many parts of the U.S., the Alaska Division of Forestry is grappling with new rules of engagement in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. “COVID-19 is posing some unique challenges that we are still wrestling with, a lot of discussions going on at a national level and a state level, trying to get direction on all sorts of things,” Mowry said.

“The Area Command Team is now working with the Alaska agencies to develop a response plan for Alaska, the same thing they’ve been doing with the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. We’re also working on our own response plan and best practices for how we’re going to mobilize crews in the bush. If we bring them out of their village are they going to be able to go back to their village? Whether we can get people we bring up from the Lower 48 tested right away so we can get them out to the field, because a two-week quarantine is not going to work for what we’re doing. From what I understand, wildland fire suppression agencies are expecting a 30% reduction in available resources due to the COVID situation. That could have a tremendous impact on Alaska if we have a busy season like last year."

Social distancing could be a serious problem, though.

“Firefighting is not conducive to social distancing and proper hygiene and everything the CDC says we should be doing."

"We are trying to do that as much as possible. We don’t set up large fire camps with caterers and showers unless the fire is by a roadside. We rely more on MREs for food. But where do you set up an incident command post? Schools are closed and don’t want us there. So we have to ask ‘are these available or do we have to find new places?’”

Like it or not, some requirements are still the same. “Our crews are just coming back and going through their 80 hours of training and we’re trying to do the best we can with that, but it’s almost impossible. These guys are riding in engines together, they’re working together – you’re not cutting line or swamping 20’ apart. At this point, we’re doing everything we can to keep our workforce safe and healthy, so that when we do start getting fires we can engage as normally as possible.”

But virtual is currently the name of the game. “A few weeks ago I had no idea what Zoom was,” Mowry admitted. “Now we’re doing virtual training, doing virtual briefings, we’re learning about Office 365 and Zoom for teleconferences, so now we have Microsoft Teams, which are another aspect of the Coronavirus. We can’t be interfacing with the public, like in the past. We’re streaming community meetings, we’re doing live updates, and you’re going to be seeing more of that. I think it’s going to be used for years to come and, hopefully, have a positive impact.” 

Alaska’s wildland fire suppression agencies use a WordPress blog, AKfireinfo.com, as their primary way of getting fire information out to the public and media but even that has its downside.

“Not everybody has internet, not everyone wants to have connectivity, so you have to adjust and figure out how you’re going to reach those people.”

Protecting the troops from an invisible virus is also paramount, as Mowry pointed out. “We’re scrambling like everyone else to get PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), which is in short supply, and trying to find it in a large supply has been difficult. We’re still figuring out what PPE we need, as well as the processes behind disinfecting engines, disinfecting helicopters, tools, all of that. It’s a work in progress and we’re really relying on boots on the ground, on best practices. Because we’re so decentralized we’re encouraging folks to pass that information up into our other areas so that we’re on the same page with a unified response.”

Aggressive Initial Attack is Key

Some areas in the Lower 48 are providing a preview of what’s to come this season. “I saw an AAR (After Action Report) from the 229-acre Lions Fire in Meeker, Colorado, the other day,” Mowry recalled.

“They shared what worked and what didn’t work, and it seemed like it was more about what didn’t work. You have fewer people riding in vehicles, so you have more vehicles and parking becomes an issue when you get to an incident. Homes, vehicles, and structures are burning and peoples’ natural instincts take over, so social distancing goes out the window as people are evacuating. Wearing masks was difficult for people. We’re still developing these best practices and we’re hoping to have a pretty good plan in place come May 1st, but we’re going to be adjusting as we go. This is a dynamic situation, with new information coming out every day throughout the season, where people are passing along information on what works and what doesn’t work, and not just in Alaska.”

Being first in line has its advantages, but not this time.

“Because we have an earlier fire season, a lot of people are going to be looking to us. We operate a little differently up here, using helicopters like folks in the Lower 48 use pickup trucks. That’s how we get a lot of firefighters out to remote incidents. A lot of our logistical stuff is done through helicopters. I’ve seen aggressive initial attack being talked about in practically every state and we’re going to be doing that because you don’t want to see a fire camp with 500 people setup. You’re going to see some different prioritization on fires based on the threats they pose. Smoke management is obviously a big concern, too, in this COVID environment.

“We’re going to be walking a tightrope on how we respond to fires and which fires we respond to,” said Mowry. “But one of the really good things that comes out of this could be that there is more information sharing among various state and federal agencies, which would make for better firefighting agencies across the board.”

Maintaining a strategic reserve will also be important. “We’re not going to dump all our resources onto one fire because we may need them for other fires that may be a higher priority,” Mowry concurred.

“We’re going to be assessing risk and mitigating risk, then taking action based on that. Coronavirus is just another risk you have to mitigate, but it’s hard because not much is known about it. We’re going to concentrate on getting our people ready, keeping them healthy so that they’ll be ready when fire season does get here.”

Like many other states, Alaska will be implementing burn restrictions in an attempt to reduce the number of human-caused fires and potential exposure to COVID for firefighters.

“We’re going to be putting a statewide burn permit suspension in place on May 1st to reduce the number of human-caused fires to which we have to respond to minimize exposure of our firefighters to the public and to have resources available if a fire does break out. We don’t want to be chasing nuisance debris burns all summer, so we’re looking to put restrictions in when things do start to dry out. Campfires will still be allowed for now, but that could be closed down as well to reduce the number of fires. More than ever, we need the public’s help in reducing fires. Mother Nature is going to make sure that we have fires, but if we can reduce the number of human-caused fires that we have to deal with, it’s going to go a long way towards reducing the danger to Alaskans and their homes.”  

You would think that homeowners would be open to reducing outdoor burns to prevent wildfires and protect firefighters from the Coronavirus, but Mowry lamented that it’s not necessarily so.

“When we announced this, I thought everyone was going to get it after the fire season we had last year. But social media posts when we announced this policy showed that not everyone was on the same page. You still walk into stores and see people who aren’t wearing masks or social distancing. Some people take this seriously, but not everyone. Some people feel they have the right to burn their cardboard and brush. Some view this policy as the government being heavy-handed. They ask ‘what’s next? Are they going to take hunting away? Are they going to take fishing away? Are they going to take our guns away?’ I didn’t expect as much resistance as we initially saw. It’s nice to see other members of the public taking these people to task because being able to burn some brush or some cardboard is really small potatoes compared to sparking a wildfire.”

So what can property owners do to help fire agencies in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic?

“People have been at home for a while now, so they should be able to Firewise their properties, but we’ve had a long, cold winter, so we’re not in that wildfire frame of mind yet because things just haven’t dried out enough yet. In the next month we’re going to see heightened awareness about the wildfire danger here, and in the next couple of months in the Lower 48.”

And then the fun begins.

Night Vision Goggle Ebook Sign Up

Recommended Articles

TracPlus For Firefighting

In firefighting, the safety of your team is paramount. TracPlus offers reliable solutions for ground and aerial firefighters, ensuring operators can seamlessly work together, regardless of location, signal or asset type. The real-time tracking and communication capabilities allow firefighters to make informed decisions and execute with precision and certainty.

Learn More