7 local firefighters return from battling wildfires in Alaska

For the CDTJuly 25, 2013 

— Seven Central Pennsylvania firefighters were among the first crews in the northeastern United States to lend a hand in battling a blaze in Alaska this month.

On July 5, Moshannon State Forest’s district forester John Hecker was joined by forest patrolman Jeremy Hamilton, foresters Scott Kucharcik, Douglas Mohney and Ryan Ling, forest technician Zachary Miller and volunteer Noah Yoder for a journey that started when they flew out of Harrisburg and ended when they touched down near the North Pole in Alaska.

The rules are not the same for firefighting in the hardwoods and pines of Pennsylvania and for the wilds of Alaska. Learning those rules was their first job.

“We generally deal with light fuel,” said Wayne Wynick, assistant district forester. “Grasses, leaf litter on the forest floor. This was a whole different critter.”

A normal Pennsylvanian fire will be well under 10,000 acres, and fighting it is measured in hours.

“A ripping big fire here is if we have to send out for hoagies a second time to feed the crew,” he said.

The fire designated Stuart Creek 2, however, is currently consuming more than 85,000 acres. It started burning in June, and is expected to burn until snow falls, although it might just hibernate and return in the spring.

“There are 12 to 18 inches of caribou moss,” said Ling. The fire can retreat beneath that cover and smolder even under an inch or more of rainfall.

That moss was a new experience for the firefighters in other ways.

“It’s a whole ’nother world. It’s like you went to Mars,” said Hamilton, who described walking on the unique terrain like hiking over mattresses. The terrain was physically demanding for the experienced crew.

The fire is still burning, in part because of the uninhabited nature of the Alaskan wilderness. Wynick said most fires are monitored more than actively fought.

“Forest fires are recycling for the black spruce in Alaska,” he said.

In fact, the eastern perimeter of the fire is not being contained at all, partially because the winds are coming from that direction but also because there are no real homes or lives at risk in that direction. To the south, however, is the Trans Alaska oil pipeline, and the western edge of the blaze burns not far from Eielson Air Force Base and its billions of dollars in military equipment.

The proximity of the base was a help to firefighters. Wynick said they could request air support, and Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters were on hand almost immediately.

“The military was very concerned about anything happening,” said Hamilton. Part of that was due to reports that the military was responsible for starting the fire in a live ammunition training area.

This was just the most recent outing for the forest fire fighting team. They have been deployed with other teams from the 21 districts in Pennsylvania for fires in Florida, Texas, the Rocky Mountains and more in recent years. A total of 44 Pennsylvanians deployed for this fire, but the national fire situation stands at a 3 on a 1 to 5 scale similar to the Homeland Security threat meter. If fires break out in other parts of the country that require large efforts, they could go again.

Hamilton knew the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the 19 firefighters who were killed when a massive June blaze in Arizona suddenly shifted direction and cut off their escape. Ling had met them as well.

The tragedy underscores one thing for the men.

“Basically, you have to have respect for the power of (the fire),” Hamilton said.

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