Thursday, September 12, 2013

Surprise Trip to Alaska!

We have a guest blogger this week, Ryan, from Red Wolf Recovery Program! He's recently returned from a fire assignment and is sharing the details and photos this week from his trip.  Thanks, Ryan!
Firefighters in Idaho. Photo by Anthony Conte, U.S. Forest Service.
Wildland firefighting is something I have participated in for a number of years now.  Since Red Wolf Recovery Program-related field work tends to slow down during the dog days of summer, it provides me an opportunity to do shift gears for a while and lend a hand during the peak wildfire season.  Once a firefighter declares himself available for a (typically 14 day) detail, he or she can be called up at any time and sent to wherever resources may be needed at the time.

On August 10, I received such a call.  Another Alligator River biologist and myself were to fly to Boise, ID, and then drive to Oregon where we were to staff an engine.  We quickly packed our gear and booked our flights to Boise out of Norfolk, VA.  We were not yet halfway to Norfolk when we got a call from dispatch – the engine we were to staff had been accidentally double booked.  Our resource order was cancelled and we were to return home.  Disappointed, we stopped for a bite to eat before turning around.  It wasn’t 15 minutes later, however, when we received another call from dispatch.  Our plans had changed again.  We were to drive to Asheville, NC, where we would join the rest of a 20 person hand crew bound for Alaska!
We were both ecstatic!  Getting a fire detail in Alaska is extremely rare, especially in August, when cooler, wetter weather typically moves in and squelches the remaining fires, sending resources home.  This year, a high pressure system had settled in over Alaska’s interior, which kept several fires burning much later than normal, and they were forced to order up additional resources to assist with suppression.

NC Inter-agency crew. Photo by Anthony Conte/U.S. Forest Service
After joining the rest of our inter-agency crew (we had firefighters from the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service) we joined 4 additional 20-person crews and flew to Fairbanks, Alaska.  From there, the 5 crews were sent to various wildfires in the surrounding area as needed.  Our crew was sent to the Birch Creek fire, a 25,000 acre fire burning in tussock tundra and black spruce less than 50 miles from the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle.  Our assignment was to cut a containment line to keep the fire away from surrounding communities, and, if conditions permitted, do a burnout on the fire side of the containment line.  We completed the containment line in just a few days, and then the cooler, wetter, weather pattern more typical to that part of Alaska in August, gradually moved in.  Our burnout was no longer needed, and we were sent back to the western lower 48, where fire danger was still extremely high and many wildfires were still burning.
Denali (Mt. McKinley). Photo by Ryan Nordsven/USFWS
Coastal mountains and glaciers in Alaska. Photo by Ryan Nordsven/USFWS.
Birch Creek fire camp - interior Alaska. Photo by Ryan Nordsven/USFWS.
We extended our detail to 21 days (instead of the normal 14) and continued to assist with two fires in north-central Idaho along the Clearwater River, and two more near the Idaho/Montana border just north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.  As I mentioned earlier, when you make yourself available for a fire detail, you never really know where you will end up or who you will be working with.  After spending almost 4 weeks (including travel) with a great bunch of people and seeing some of the wildest, most scenic country in the US, I feel like I couldn’t have hand picked a better fire detail!
Clearwater River - Idaho. Photo by Anthony Conte/U.S. Forest Service.
A big thank you to all these firefighters from the Red Wolf Recovery Program!


  1. Thanks so much for your story and photos, Ryan. I'm so proud to work for/with such dedicated folks like you, Brain, Bonnie, and our fire crew here at ARNWR. I'm glad you were able to assist at such a beautiful spot!

  2. Awesome! Way to go Ryan!! :))

  3. Good article. Thanks for sharing and for the pics.

  4. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us its interesting and wonderful photos and i know alaska is full of adventurers places on earth