A journey of time and fire
Last week’s rain may be putting a bittersweet end to the wild land firefighting season and the opportunity for members of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company to gain hands-on experience through a support contract with the state Division of Forestry.
“Looking out the window, it looks like we might be at the end of this year’s season,” Bruce Bartley said in a phone interview last week. He is the former CVFRC chief and now current senior captain. He also took the lead in bringing the company’s Brush #35 – a 400-gallon tanker equipped with a pump capable of spraying as much as 750 gallons of water per minute for quick application when necessary – to assist with the Funny River fire in the Soldotna area earlier this spring.
“Every spring and summer for a long time now, we as part of the task force for the Division of Forestry out of Palmer, have had at least one of our engines from this volunteer department be assigned, if not more, to assist in wild land fire assignments,” he said. “It is nice to get the extra money to bolster our own wild land efforts here to buy and maintain equipment. But the biggest thing is the training and experience that our people get when they go on these assignments that help to prepare them for the ‘what if’ this happens in our own backyard.”
That’s one reason Bartley was pleased to take Tommy Frazier, a 20-year-old volunteer firefighter currently working his way through the company’s various training programs, along for the two week stint assigned to the Funny River fire. Frazier is a Firefighter 2 for structural firefighting scenarios, and Bartley thought the time had come for Frazier – who is also qualified as an EMT 1 (Emergency Medical Technician) and EMT2 – to attain some hands-on experience in wild land. In early June for 11 days, he accompanied Bartley providing structural protection for homes potentially threatened by Funny River and providing information and guidance to the general public living as the two became temporary employees on the forestry division’s firefighting payroll.
It’s all part of Frazier’s journey toward becoming a professional firefighter as he is mentored by Bartley, who joined the volunteer company in 1983.
“There was a lot going on,” Frazier said. “Just trying to balance everything was a challenge. There were a lot of people moving all over the place. We were patrolling the roads to see where fire was spotted and our job was to protect structures and to plumb the structures.”
“Plumb” in the firefighting world means to lay hose line around a structure so that when the fire danger is eminent, firefighters can quickly douse a structure with water to protect it from the heat of approaching flames. It can be a challenging job. Fire hoses aren’t light and placing them around an Alaskan home in the woods isn’t as smooth a task as lining hose out on concrete or asphalt found in urban settings.
Close, but not too close
The closest Bartley and Frazier were to the active section of the Funny River fire was about a half mile. But it was close enough to see the tops of trees torching and to be in the midst of a concerned and confused local populace.
“The people did not have a lot of information,” Frazier said when referencing the time frame when the fire was moving quickly and gaining significant portions of acreage each day. “We had maps. That helped us to give them as much information as we could. That seemed to help calm people.”
The pair worked the night patrol for part of their assignment.
While most of the daytime excitement is long over by nightfall, Bartley explained, the night provides its own dramatic moments monitoring for any flare-ups as workers hang out on the road system and in private driveways remaining vigilant.
“Sometimes we would literally be parked in someone’s driveway and they came to tell us that our presence was reassuring to them because these residents expressed, ‘hey, I can sleep tonight,’ or things like, ‘it is reassuring to knowing that you are here,’” Bartley said. “The reality was that it was pretty likely that some of them could have lost their home.”
It’s a scenario Bartley said isn’t beyond the scope of reality right here in Chugiak-Eagle River, where many homes are surrounded by trees and close proximity to forest lands.
He’s thankful members of the volunteer department can get first-hand knowledge and training through contracts with the state forestry division.
In the beginning
It all began in 1996 with the Miller’s Reach fire in Big Lake. Engines from all over Southcentral Alaska responded – contracted or not – including the staff and engines from the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company, Bartley explained. After the fire, he and other members debriefed and quickly acknowledged that their experience in Big Lake revealed a serious deficiency in equipment and training for wild land fire scenarios. The leadership of the volunteer company set about acquiring those things, Bartley said
“When it was all said and down, we had to admit we did not have a clue, we were not prepared, we did not have the training and we did not have the equipment,” Bartley said. “We agreed that we needed to get better at this because the risk in our own area was high. The likelihood of something like this happening again was pretty good.”
Since then, members of the volunteer firefighting organization attend the 40 hours of state-sponsored wild land fire training courses. The company has acquired plenty of appropriate equipment including three “brush” trucks – the water tankers commonly used in hard-to-reach settings.
And they’ve been collecting payments for use of their equipment under contracts – such as the work at Funny River for which the company is slated to receive a bit more than $13,000 according to Virginia McMichael, chief and administrative officer – via agreements with state agencies setting forth pre-determined daily values for the deployment of volunteer-owned equipment such as Brush #35 that traveled to Soldotna. All the funds go back into equipment.
While $13,000 won’t buy a new tanker truck, it goes a long way toward miscellaneous supplies that don’t have that seemingly insignificant tag in the middle of a firefighting operation.
One example came last summer when Bartley realized firefighting personnel ought to have waterproof bags to put their personal gear in for stowage on top of the engine truck while in transit. Another example was the purchase of specialized hose couplings necessary for hooking the fire engine tanker hose to a commercial water supply tanker hose to access its 5,000 gallons of fire-drenching water waiting to be transferred.
“When you are out on assignment, you discover certain deficiencies and learn about things that your company needs,” Bartley said.
The couplings were an approximately $100 expense the company’s wild land efforts easily funded. Yet, the funds derived from wild land work can be consumed as quickly as fire consumes dry wood when purchasing other necessary equipment. Specialized radios designed for communicating in wild land fire scenarios used by the volunteer company because forestry division personnel use them cost $1,500 each. These radios are significantly different from what the volunteer company uses in its local operations, Bartley said. The goal of having this type of radio assigned to each qualified member of the company to standardize communication in wild land settings is yet to be reached.
“$13,000 sounds like a lot of money but just the cost of those radios gives a little perspective on just how far it might go,” Bartley said.
As Bartley mulls over his purchase recommendations for the volunteer fire company’s purchasing board, Frazier is resting up from a couple weeks of back-breaking work near Delta Junction.
After his stint at Funny River was complete, Frazier joined the state forestry hand crew based out from Palmer to fight the 100-Mile fire near Delta Junction. It began as a prescribed burn on the Donnelly Training Center, a U.S. Military-owned area. On May 13, the fire jumped the boundary set up by military members and the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management agency located on Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks, requested help from the civilian world. By June 9, the fire spread to nearly 20,000 acres of land covered with black spruce and other hard woods. Concerns that the fire could explode buried munitions prompted fire-fighting officials to take aggressive action including deploying multiple hand crews working to curb the fire on the ground.
That work wasn’t quite as glamorous as what Frazier performed in Soldotna.
On the 100-Mile fire, Frazier carried a Fedco pack on his back full of five gallons of water. That’s 45 pounds between the water, the pack apparatus and its hand pump. He had his day pack or in firefighter terms – his line pack – with rain gear, extra socks and a couple personal items to carry also while he used a Pulaski – a combination of an axe and hoe – and chainsaws to clear debris or what firefighters call fuel from the edges of where they are attempting to contain the fire.
“It is very tough, it is for the young guys for sure,” Bartley said.
You’d think Frazier might be happy to take a break from such exhausting work. Yet, it doesn’t take long in a conversation with him to discover that his current hiatus waiting to see if another wild land fire is sparked.
“Just not happy unless I am fighting fires,” he said with a transparent attempt at comedy revealing much more the chagrin the young man tried to hide as he returns to volunteer duty at Station 31 on the Old Glenn Highway. “Every kid wants to be a firefighter when they are young. I graduated high school and got involved with the volunteer fire department where I can get my training. I really like it. It kind of is my passion now.”
Author’s note: On behalf of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company, Bartley requested that local homeowners be reminded to maintain a defensible perimeter around their homes that is free of debris and wood piles. He also wishes to remind readers that fireworks are illegal within the Municipality of Anchorage and pose a fire hazard when not properly contained.