6 locals headed to Alaska to battle blazes

Six specialized firefighters from this area have been sent to Stuart Creek, Alaska, to help battle an intense wildfire that has forced some 600 people from their homes.

The fire in and around Stuart Creek, about 50 miles from Fairbanks, reportedly has kindled more than 82,000 acres.

Six members from the Tiadaghton State Forest, District 12, specialized crew left Pennsylvania Saturday alongside two, 20-man crews from across the state to help fight the wildfires ripping through Alaska.

Crews from Delaware, Maryland and Missouri also were on their way to Stuart Creek.

Jake Richards, forest fire specialist supervisor for the Tiadaghton State Forest, said the six members were assembled and are employees of the state’s bureau of forestry. Their names will not be released until they return, Richards said. All six have completed special training to allow them to go to out-of-state fires such as this one.

“We were requested to fill a squad-size crew from the district. There are 160 people who left from the eastern area on Saturday,” he said.

The fire is producing heavy smoke conditions and Richards said the crews are looking at only a 5 percent containment. He said updates were telling him that the fire behavior is extreme due to winds.

“It’s crowning and torching in areas,” he said.

Crowning is when the fire is intensifying and growing larger and spreading faster. Richards said it is due to fuel and weather conditions. The dangerous behavior causes the fire to spread across the top of trees faster than it will on the ground. Then, after crowning, the ground fire will occur, he said.

“Alaska has had a dry fire season with all the warm weather they have had up there,” he said.

On Tuesday, Richards said the crew from Tiadaghton will focus on structure protection.

“There are a lot of villages being threatened and evacuations in place. They will be assigned to structure protection – protecting homes,” Richard said.

The crews will be working in 12-hour shifts.

On the ground, they will be making fire lines, usually dug by hand, or creating breaks in the forested areas. It is done by digging down into the dirt, using hand tools or heavy machinery. It eliminates any fuels for the fire to burn, stopping it in its tracks.

It’s not normal for crews from District 12 to be sent to Alaska. Those crews have responded to many fires in the western states and California.

“It’s a rarity. Alaska had 11 fires going last week and out of the 11, six did not have any people on them at all,” Richards said.

The situation has become pretty extreme now because of the number of fires, the limited access and manpower.

“They requested assistance from the lower 49 and we are helping them,” he said.

The recent tragedy in Arizona, where 19 firefighters will killed fighting a large forest fire, is on the minds of the crew, he said.

“It’s on everyone’s mind and it’s a wake-up call to everyone doing their job safely and aware of their surroundings as they are working these fires,” Richards said.

Daily safety briefings and condition updates are given to all of the fire crews, he said.

Members from the Tiadagthon district will be in Alaska for two weeks. Richards said the division of forest fire protection is assembling more crews in case more manpower is needed in other parts of the nation.

Also assisting the crews are the Alaskan Smoke Jumpers, hot shots and the National Guard.