Firefighters return from Alaska

Six specialized firefighters from Tiadaghton State Forest, District 12, have returned from Alaska.

While in Alaska they were added to specialized crews sent from Pennsylvania to help battle what is called the Stuart Creek fire, which started June 19. When the team arrived, only 5 percent of the fire was in containment.

Four of the six team members sat down to talk about their experience in Alaska Thursday.

They talked about the conditions and vast difference in terrain, but one thing was the same – how they suppressed the fire didn’t change way up north.

Doug Frederick, forester, said common methods used to fight fires in the lower 48 were used there.

“We laid out hose, did mop up for hot spots. We took care of hazard trees. I didn’t feel like it was different as far as the work we did goes,” he said.

The terrain did differ considerably.

“The conditions were pretty adverse, extremely steep and the cover was different. There were areas (of) peat, bogs and tundra,” Sam Raisch, forest technician said.

“It was like walking on a mattress for two weeks straight,” Angela Poleto, forest technician and the only woman from Pennsylvania to head to Alaska, said.

The crew Poleto was with built a dam to put in a pump for water to go up over the next mountain. She said they also built two helicopter pads.

“My crew got flown in and dropped off in the middle of the swamp by a helicopter,” she said.

The goal for all six was to help stop or suppress the fire from getting to Eielson Air Force base west of them, and also protect a town of 700-plus homes and about 150 commercial buildings.

“It was fairly remote, but accessible. There were a number of roads into that area,” Ben Sands, forester said.

For Sam and Angela, this was the first fire they fought out of state. So, like the rest of the crew they jumped at the chance to go, because it was Alaska.

Aside from the terrain difference, one of the biggest hurdles to deal with was the constant daylight. Right now, Alaska experiences an almost 24 hours of daylight.

“They call it the Final Frontier and they also call it the Land of the Midnight Sun, and that is what we were dealing with,” Raisch said. “The sun would go down and it would still be daylight. It wouldn’t get too much darker, just slightly overacted but bright as day.”

At camp trouble sleeping was a common occurrence.

“You would hear people waking up. You hear one tent zipper, the next and the next. You had no way of plugging in your phones to know what time it was,” Poleto said. “Then someone would look at their watch and say ‘you know it’s only 3 a.m. and the sun is still shining bright., “

They all agreed it messed with their sleep cycles, leading to a little more exhaustion for them.

“You know it was 11:30 at night but you’d couldn’t sleep,” Frederick said.

“Plus you had a 4-and-half-hour time difference,” Ben Sands, forester said.

The weather would run from a 90 degree day to 40 from one day to the next – something unusual for Alaska. That weather was one of the reasons why the fire was burning so much acreage.

“The one day everything was soaked and we thought it was going to be out, and then the nest it was 90 degrees and the crowns of trees are burning. As soon as it would warm up it (the fire) would start back up,” Poleto said.

A very unique aspect the crews ran into, and all mentioned, was the permafrost.

“Typically when you mop up you are trying to get everything cold. So dig down a foot or so and you would hit solid ice to there permafrost,” Sands said.

Raisch said it was strange to see ice right next to where a fire is flaring up.

The moss also was a game changer for the crews. When the rain would come they said it would soak the top of the moss that covered much of the ground.

“The moss was so thick, as soon as you dig down it would be bone dry. That would burn and keep spreading,” Sands said.

They worked about 16-hour shifts, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and camped out in tents.

Poleto said her crew was in the swamps for her second camp, and it rained making her tent and sleeping bag wet and they had to deal with mosquitoes.

“It was absolutely horrible, to be honest. The other camp wasn’t too bad. They had food, showers for us and once we got slung out there, I think it was five or six days I didn’t take a shower,” she laughed.

Sands said the first camp was along an air strip.

“We started out eating MREs (meal ready to eat) for a handful of days and then they brought up food,” he said.

Later enclosed tents were erected so crew members could cook, and later a caterer came in with food.

Alaska isn’t Alaska without its wildlife and crew members did see some.

“The first day we saw a moose, and then we were able to see a moose cow and her calf,” Raisch said. “Different birds, bald eagles, spruce grouse and there was a wolf sighting in the area where we were working.

Not one sighting of a grizzly was reported.

The local crew members were called up for the Stuart Creek Fire just weeks after 19 Hot Shot firefighting crew members perished in a wildfire in Arizona.

“My mom was a nervous wreck,” Poleto said.

Fredrick and Sands had fought fires out west before, but for Poleto and Raisch this was their first.

“There is a little bit of difference in what we do and what a Hot shot Crew (like) the one where all the fatalities occurred. They are sent in as the initial attack on the fire,” Sands explained. “Basically they will do a very aggressive aspect of the firefighting.”

“They are right in the heat of things,” Frederick added.

Most dangerous to the crew members were falling trees. Because of the thick moss that grew all along the ground, the trees there had a very shallow root system.

“The root system would burn,” Sands said, sending trees toppling down.

Raisch said he had a wake-up call when a he was standing in an area discussing running hose line.

“We heard someone yell and here come two trees. … It ended up being an eight inch spruce,” he said.

The root ball of the tree blew out and hit a double-forked birch, which landed not far from where they were standing.

“The trees falling were much more scarier than the fire,” Frederick said.

For the most part what the state crew helped do was mop up.

“Or hold the line that the Hot Shots put in, so the fire doesn’t spread further,” Sands said.

Some worked with the Hot Shot crews on the Stuart Creek Fire.

“We were all in initial attack crews. So, 19 to 20 people and then split into a few different squads and the squads can even break up and do different tasks,” Sands said.

The Air Force helped out by providing air support.

Frederick said they watched Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters dropping water on the fire, not something you see fighting a wild land fire.

The people of Alaska were extremely gracious and thankful for the fire fighters work.

“We went to diner and were going to go int to eat and there wasn’t enough seats. So we headed back to the bus. Then people came out and said you guys can go in. We gave up our seats for you. They wanted to thank you for what you did here,” Poleto said.

When the crews left, the fire was 57 percent contained. Reports said as of July 17 it had burned more than 87,000 acres. Incident reports were saying its possible it was human caused, but that is under investigation.

All four crew members said they would do it again. They saw wildlife, trees and even the snowcapped Alaska range while there – things they would have never seen before.

The other two crew members were Floyd Hartman, forester, and Arliss Rhinehart, a maintenance repairman.