BLM innovates rural Alaska wildland firefighting and keeps traditions alive

Beth Ipsen

When Cliff Alexander started fighting fire in 1977, his grandfathers were two of the squad bosses on his Type 2 emergency firefighter (EFF) crew.  

Now a Type 2 squad boss on the Capstone 1 Type 2 BLM Contract Crew, Alexander had a few grand-nephews working on the crew this summer, including 20-year-old Matthew Titus, a rookie from Minto. The crew was made up of firefighters from Tanana, Minto, Nenana, Mountain Village, and Marshall. Titus said all six of his fellow crewmembers from Minto are related.  

Firefighters walking in line
The SES Fire Type 2 Contract Crew, made up of firefighters from Huslia and Allakaket, does a grid search for hotspots while assigned to the Tamarack Fire in Nevada in July 2021. The SES Crew, which is contracted through business Scorched Earth Services, LLC, out of Huslia, is in its second year as a BLM contract crew. Photo by Hudson Plass, BLM AFS

The Capstone 1 Crew was one of three contracts awarded for 20-person Type 2 hand crews based in the BLM Alaska Fire Service’s Upper Yukon and Tanana Fire Management Zones in 2020. This crew, plus the other two Type 2 Alaska contract crews – the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments based in Fort Yukon and Scorched Earth Services, LLC based in Huslia – spent an average of 61 days on fires in Alaska and the Lower 48 last year and were again assigned to fires in 2021.  

These crews were so successful in 2020, in 2021 the BLM AFS expanded it to Western Alaska and awarded three contracts to crews in numerous Yukon River communities for quick response to fires throughout the BLM Alaska Fire Service (BLM AFS) protection area covering about 191.5 million acres in the northern half of the state – an area larger than the state of Texas. 

These crews are predominately made up of Alaska Natives whose families have spent generations working on emergency firefighting (EFF) hand crews in Alaska, supplementing the agency employee crews. It’s a rich tradition that many throughout rural Alaska are proud of and was one of the few sources of income in rural Alaska. The number of federal emergency firefighter (EFF) crews dwindled in the past two decades as other employment opportunities arose, populations shifted, and the BLM fully implemented national requirements for all fire fighters.  
 

Firefighters on line
Squad boss Cliff Alexander of Minto digs at a dozer berm he and other crew members were flattening during suppression repair work on Oct. 8, 2021. The Capstone 1 Crew, a Type 2 Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service contract hand crew made up of firefighters from Alaska communities of Tanana, Minto, Nenana, Mountain Village, and Marshall and one member from Las Vegas, Nevada, were repairing bulldozer line constructed during suppression efforts on the Dixie Fire near Susanville, California. Photo by Beth Ipsen, BLM AFS

To keep this vital tradition alive, the BLM AFS contract crew program was established to meet the need for Type 2 wildland firefighting crews available for response in Alaska and the lower 48. It is the first of its kind for BLM nationally.  

The contract crews must adhere to national qualifications for Type 2 hand crews. The solicitation was a competitive process for qualified entities to ensure viable crews are available when called upon. 

Unlike federal EFF crews that are hired for emergency situations, contracted crews can work on non-emergency projects, such as fuels mitigation. Contract crews have provided more stable employment than the prior EFF program with more days worked and the opportunity for benefits paid by contractors. Private contractors can and have provided additional wildland fire opportunities to Alaska firefighters. The lower 48 based contractor for the Capstone 1 Crew, tapped its pool of Alaska firefighters for assignments on fire engines and a helicopter crew in the western states to give them more experience and training.  

Firefighter walking
Capstone 1 Crew firefighter Christian Sommer of Tanana, Alaska walks down the dozer line he and other members of the crew were repairing on Oct. 8, 2021. The Type 2 Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service contract hand crew made up of firefighters from Alaska communities of Tanana, Minto, Nenana, Mountain Village, and Marshall, were repairing bulldozer line constructed during suppression efforts on the Dixie Fire near Susanville, California. Crew members were among the thousands of firefighting personnel who traveled great distances to help the communities impacted by the nearly 1-million acre Dixie Fire. The crew also spent time on three fires outside Helena, Montana and did two assignments on the Dixie Fire this year. Photo by BethI Ipsen.

The SES and CATG crews are based in Alaska and are owned by Alaska Natives and Native organizations, giving Indigenous groups additional opportunities to manage their own wildland fire crew program and play a larger role in wildland firefighter in Alaska and the lower 48. 

As part of the contracts, all crew members must be located in the crew region during the mandatory availability period from June 1 to Aug. 31 to enable them to quickly respond to wildfires in Alaska. Some contractors employ additional support staff to help maintain records and provide training. The contract crews are self-sufficient while on assignments with contractors providing more support, transportation, and equipment. This includes renting trucks instead of having crews shuttled around by bus that can limit where they can work due to rough terrain. 

BLM AFS still maintains a list of single-resource casual hires for single resource hires. Because there weren’t enough remaining qualified EFF responders in regions that were not awarded contacts, the BLM AFS no longer administers a Type 2 EFF Crew program. The State of Alaska’s operates its own EFF program, separate from AFS. 

BLM AFS Statewide EFF and Contract Crew Coordinator Hudson Plass is pleased with how the program has worked for BLM AFS and given Alaska Native wildland firefighters, many of whom he’s known for years as the EFF crew coordinator, even more opportunities for work. Working closely with contract officers from the BLM National Operations Center in Denver, Plass was instrumental in creating this first of its kind contract crew program for BLM nationally. He hopes the program will continue to grow to ensure there are enough hand crews to fit the needs in Alaska and the lower 48 while giving Alaska’s Indigenous peoples the chance to continue this long-standing tradition of wildland firefighting. 

“It warms my heart to actually see these new contract crews out working, both in Alaska and the lower 48,” Plass said. “The old EFF crew program was no longer offering what we needed it to. We have a new mechanism that appears to be working in ways we had hoped for and even in ways we had not considered.” 

“I truly believe we are on a much better path in terms of solving the problems that come with not having enough type 2 resources available,” he added. “Keeping these resources out working longer allows for more experienced, more proficient and just an overall more robust type 2 crews.”  

More photos of Alaska Type 2 Contract Crews in 2020 and 2021, the BLM Alaska Fire Service Flickr album on https://flic.kr/s/aHsmXeVura