There aren’t nearly as many emergency firefighters in Alaska as there used to be. The 49th state has a mere 20 emergency firefighting crews this year across both state and federal firefighting agencies. That’s down from more than 70 crews at the height of the emergency firefighting program in the 1980s and 1990s and down five crews from last year alone.
Emergency firefighters are 20-member crews who are sometimes referred to as village crews because they’re often staffed by and named after remote Alaska communities. They provide a rare source of cash income in the rural economy and, even in their reduced numbers, they still make up the bulk of the wildfire fighting force in Alaska for the state and federal governments.
But the emergency firefighting program has changed in big ways in recent years, as national standards increase medical and other standards for employment. It is expected to change even more in 2019 as parts of the program switch to private contractors.
From a fire protection standpoint, the declining number of on-call firefighters hasn’t been a problem.
Hudson Plass, who coordinates the emergency firefighter program for the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service, has calculated the average number of assignments for emergency firefighters in both in-state and Lower 48 fires. He said 20 crews is a good number.
“This year, the total number of crews that we’ve come down to more closely matches what the need is,” he said.
Decreasing numbers of crews mean remaining crews are assigned to more fires, which makes firefighting a more dependable source of income.
At the busiest times in the past six years, fire managers in Alaska have needed at most 14 fire crews at a single time, he said.
During the 2015 season, the second-busiest fire season on record in Alaska, emergency firefighting crews were needed for 24 two-week assignments in Alaska and 16 two-week assignments in the Lower 48.
Reasons for decline
Some long-term trends that have cut the ranks of emergency firefighters include continued migration from Alaska’s rural communities to Alaska’s urban centers (decreasing the pool of prospective firefighters in villages) and a change in firefighting policy that allows more fires to burn naturally, instead of trying to put out every blaze, said Tim Mowry, a spokesman for Alaska’s Division of Forestry.
“Research showed that suppressing all fires and taking fire out of the landscape wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because it led to fuel overloading and was not good for habitat and forest health. As a result, we ended up making changes to our fire management options to allow more fire on the landscape,” Mowry said in an email. “That, in turn, cut down on the amount of work for (emergency firefighter) crews, so the number of assignments and amount of work went down.”
In recent years, requirements, such as a written physical fitness survey and a criminal background check, have dissuaded some applicants. The background check is necessary to access Fort Wainwright, the Fairbanks headquarters for state and federal wildland firefighters.
Next year, for the first time, Alaska’s emergency firefighters will have to see a doctor for a physical exam before being hired. Alaskans had a waiver for this federal requirement for the past three years.
PJ Simon, a former wildland firefighter and a former chief of the village of Allakaket, argues the physical exam and testing requirements are too stringent. Simon wrote a community perspective in the Daily News-Miner about the subject this spring that sparked a conversation about firefighter job requirements at the Tanana Chiefs Conference annual convention.
“EFF crews always have stayed in good shape and passed all fitness requirements; some have even gone on to Hotshot crews and a few have joined the Alaska Smokejumpers. Of course, we need physically fit firefighters, but now it seems like we are preparing firefighters for a trip to the moon instead of a wildland firefighting assignment.”
Simon’s hometown of Allakaket, population 106, once had three firefighting crews which, in 1990 (a particularly busy year), had 11 fire assignments between the three of them. Last year, the lone remaining Allakaket crew had zero assignments in Alaska and one assignment in the Lower 48.
Simon also blames the decline of work for emergency firefighters on the use of more Lower 48 firefighters in Alaska.
Plass, at the Alaska Fire Service, said that’s not a fair criticism because emergency firefighters aren’t qualified for some of the advanced assignments that Lower 48 firefighters are called up to do. The emergency firefighters, which have fewer qualifications, are known simply as Type 2 crews. More advanced firefighter crews are known as Type 2 IA (Initial Attack) crews and Type 1 crews. The latter crews are also known as hotshots.
“People who are involved with these crews in Alaska, when they hear we’re bringing in crews from the Lower 48, that’s all they hear,” Plass said.
“(It’s) because they’re Type 1 crews and Type 2 IA crews.”
Another reason for the decline in the number of emergency firefighter crews in Alaska is the growth of another type of crew — called agency crews — within Alaska. Unlike emergency firefighters, who work only as needed, agency crews work most of the summer and are dispatched out before emergency firefighters. Several of these agency crews have more advanced training than the emergency firefighters, although not all of them.
Alaska’s Division of Forestry has gone from one to six agency crews in the past 20 years. The federal Alaska Fire Service has three more.
Coming to the Interior next summer is a new style of fire crew, one managed by a business or government and contracted to provided fire services to the Alaska Fire Service. This style of crew is already common in the Pacific Northwest and is getting more common in the Rocky Mountains, Plass said.
The idea behind the switch to contract crews is to relieve the Alaska Fire Service of the responsibility of administering the program while also giving businesses and organizations a chance to make some income.
“Initially, what we’re looking at is four contract crews and then, to try it out, also maintain this (emergency firefighter) program,” Plass said.
While the emergency firefighter program will remain next year, no emergency firefighter crews will be near the new contract crews so the two don’t compete against each other, he said.
The Alaska Fire Service is reviewing business plans of perspective contractors to gauge how practical they are. The Fire Service plans to put out a request for fire crew bids in October, Plass said. Potential contractors include tribal governments, Native corporations and other businesses.