Cold Winter Cache

Beth Ipsen

Last summer, more than 606 miles of hose was used on fires throughout Alaska. That’s more than the distance between Fairbanks and Homer (580 miles) or Grand Junction and Las Vegas (507 miles). All that hose needs to be inspected for leaks, cleaned and rolled back up before it can be used again on fires this year.

Worker holding a fire hose with water coming out.
Cache materials handler Yolanda Copple moves shuts off hoses while testing for leaks at what is called the hose pond at BLM AFS facilities on Fort Wainwright June 3, 2019. The hose must hold water at 300 psi for three minutes. Photo by Beth Ipsen, Alaska Fire Service.

There’s just a little bit left over that needs to be inspected and rolled, but it’s a little hard to do when the outdoor facilities where the fire hose is tested – called the hose pond – froze months ago.

Despite temperatures of -40 in Fairbanks where the BLM Alaska Fire Service Cache is located, other work has continued throughout the winter to refurbish equipment returned later than usual in September due to late fires in Southcentral Alaska.

In 2019, 1.9 million pounds of equipment, valued at $25.8 million, was issued through the BLM AFS warehouse at BLM AFS facilities on Fort Wainwright. Other items that were issued through the Cache in 2019 were:  918 pump kits; 465 chainsaw kits; 10,673 individual Meals-Ready-to-Eat, known as or MREs; and 14,694 5-gallon water jugs, known as cubies, for a total of 73,472.5 gallons of drinking water for firefighters. Some of that equipment didn’t return.

Warehouse worker pushing a pallet of equipment
BLM AFS Cache worker Cheryl Ballot processes electronic equipment for recycling on Feb. 12, 2020. Ballot and five other warehouse workers were brought back to work earlier than normal to work on projects left over from the longer than normal 2019 fire season. Photo by Mike Bradley, Alaska Fire Service.

A large portion of what goes out, comes back in through the warehouse, and is refurbished so it can be used again either in Alaska or in the Lower 48. The late fire season translated to a later than usual work season for the Cache.

Man working on bandsaw
BLM AFS Cache worker Morgan Kothe is tuning a band saw in preperation for cutting Pulaski handles on Feb. 12, 2020. Kothe and five other warehouse workers were brought back to work earlier than normal to work on projects left over from the longer than normal 2019 fire season. Photo by Mike Bradley, Alaska Fire Service.

Assistant Cache Manager Gonzalo Gardner said in addition to the five people who work in the Cache year-round, six workers returned early in mid-February to refurbish items like pumps, chainsaws and Pulaskis – the primary hand tool used by firefighters in Alaska – before they’re used in the upcoming fire season.

“We’ve got a lot of work left over,” Gardner said. “Typically, we start bringing the rest of the staff in April and get the hose pond running.”

Warehouse staff are also auditing equipment used on the various fires to make sure items came back. Disposable items such as batteries, consumed MREs and fresh food boxes won’t make it back, but there’s plenty that does. If the equipment is returned in good enough shape to be used again, the charge is credited from the total fire costs.

“These employees are a large part of the unseen fire effort,” said Cache Manager Mike Bradley.

The Alaska Fire Service Warehouse Cache is home to one of six National Type I Fire Caches, the highest category among the 15 nation caches in terms of organization. It provides supplies and equipment for all fire suppression and fire management operations in coordination with other statewide agencies such as the State of Alaska, BLM Alaska, BLM field offices, and the Defense Logistics Agency. They also coordinate supply operations with the other national fire caches.

Warehouse worker holds box of equipment
BLM AFS Cache worker Gene David was busy on Feb. 12, 2020 building pump kits for the upcoming fire season. David and five other warehouse workers were brought back to work earlier than normal to work on projects left over from the longer than normal 2019 fire season. Photo by Mike Bradley, Alaska Fire Service.

In addition to the approximately $16.2 million worth of inventory the Cache typically has during fire season, $12.5 million worth of goods and equipment was delivered in more than two dozen semi-truck loads from the Lower 48 in support of Alaska fires last year. The equipment needed to go back before the snow fell. It was all hands on deck and then some. The Cache hired additional people in Alaska and brought other warehouse workers from the Lower 48 this year to help move equipment in and out to support fires this long season.

Typically, fire season tapers off around the end of July, about the same time fire season picks up in the Lower 48. Not this year. Over half of the about 4.6 million acres burned in the country last year were in Alaska.

“We were the biggest show in town,” Gardner said. “We had priority.”

Several workers from the Rocky Mountain Area Cache in Denver assisted several people working helping the AFS Cache not only during the fire season, but afterwards to help reconfigure the AFS warehouse in an attempt to make it more efficient, Bradley said.

“We couldn’t have done it by ourselves,” he said.

This entailed physically moving everything off the shelves, rebuilding the shelves, restocking everything and reconfiguring the electronic tracking system to streamline the process of pulling orders and conducting inventories.

“We’ve done a lot of stuff and we’ve changed a lot of stuff around. We’re going to discover some kinks and work them out. And we’ve got to continue to maintain the system,” Bradley said. “We still have a lot of work ahead of us before the fire season starts.”