Tasha Shields, Tanana Zone fuels specialist, and Beth Ipsen, AFS public affairs specialist
The high-pitch whine of chainsaws pierced the silence in the tiny remote village of Alatna for a couple of weeks in the fall of 2022. Typically, the only sounds that break the stillness are an occasional dog barking, a raven cawing or a motorboat on the nearby Koyukuk River. Instead, the crisp fall air was filled with noises made by firefighters busy cutting a swath of trees and shrubs through the woods that surround Alatna.
This is one of several projects underway to help make rural communities more resilient to wildfires and gives fire managers a strategic operational advantage when a wildfire threatens the village. Because the crew was mostly made up of Indigenous individuals from nearby rural villages in Interior Alaska, the work also provided employment opportunities in underserved communities.
Alatna, and its neighboring village of Allakaket, were identified by BLM Alaska Fire Service (BLM AFS) as communities of concern due to the threat of a catastrophic wildfire. Department of the Interior (DOI) policy provides guidance for wildland fire response in Alaska, and grants BLM AFS the authority to provide fire suppression on DOI and Native lands in Alaska and assist those entities with other fire management activities. The two villages, located at the Arctic Circle about 190 air miles northwest of Fairbanks, fall under the BLM AFS’s Tanana Fire Management Zone, whose staff is leading efforts to reduce wildfire risk to the two communities and their approximately 200 residents. Newly created federal fuels management positions provide BLM AFS the capacity to advise Alaska Native corporations, villages, Tribes and communities with the goal of empowering them to align the work directly to their needs.
A Community Wildland Fire Protection Plan was completed in 2020 through a collaborative effort between BLM AFS staff, the community and Tribal members. The plan identifies and prioritizes areas for hazardous fuels reduction and recommends treatment methods to protect communities, essential infrastructure and cultural sites. Later that year, BLM AFS personnel, including the Chena Hotshot Crew, began construction of a 3-mile-long, 10-foot-wide saw line with future plans for expansion to a 50-foot-wide shaded fuel break adjacent to Alatna. Because the next phase of construction exceeded the community's workforce capacity, a contract was solicited and awarded to Rural Metro Fire, the contractor for the Type 2 Mooseheart Crew.
The crew mobilized to Alatna on Aug. 28 and completed the project on Sept.17. The crew cut and piled material at a rate of one acre a day and created more than 3,000 small woody debris piles which will be burned in the fall of 2023. The piles were covered with squares of paper to keep the core dry to make them easier to burn in the future and reduce the smoke emissions.
“Some of these guys, it’s their first year as a sawyer so it’s good learning experience for them before we get out on a fire so they know what to do,” said Crew Boss Nicholas Roberts of Minto.
This work is possible because of BLM AFS’s commitment in partnering with residents to find innovate methods to ensure community and firefighter safety during wildfire suppression. Part of the project is funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Fiscally, this mitigation work will aid in reducing suppression costs through on-the-ground wildfire preparedness. It will also lessen the potential for negative long-term environmental impacts from reactionary suppression actions.
It is also the first example of hazardous fuels reduction work completed by an Alaska Type 2 contract crew.
The first of its kind for BLM nationally, the contract crew program was created by BLM AFS to meet the need for Type 2 wildland firefighter crews in Alaska and the Lower 48 in response to the changing complexity of managing federal emergency firefighter (EFF) crews. The Mooseheart Crew, which is made up almost entirely of firefighters living in nearby Tanana and Minto, was one of the first of three contract crews in 2020. The program has since expanded to nine crews based in remote Alaska communities for quick response to fires within the BLM AFS protection area covering the northern half of the state.
Being a relatively new resource, the crew's primary mission is to support wildland fire management efforts on an as-needed basis. However, unlike Alaska EFF crews of the past, contract crews can be utilized for hazardous fuels reduction projects during times of low-fire activity. The crew worked on a few Alaska fires in 2022 and were anticipating traveling to the Lower 48 after completing the work in Alatna – assignments that didn’t transpire due to a relatively slower fire season in the contiguous U.S.
Similarity, the Nulato Hills Crew – another Alaska Type 2 contract crew predominately made up of firefighters from Kaltag, Nulato, Koyukuk, Galena and Ruby and contracted through the Alaska Native owned Nulato Hills Enterprises, LLC – was the second contract crew utilized for a fuels reduction project. The handcrew, which typically includes about 20 members, mobilized for work on BLM-managed land outside the City of Eagle, Alaska in early September paid in part with BIL funds. Meanwhile, the Village of Eagle has community members conducting its own wildfire risk reduction work funded through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Both Eastern Alaska communities have benefited from partnerships with federal land management and wildfire agencies to make them more resilient to wildfires.
The BLM will continue to work closely with communities, Alaska Native organizations, and Tribes to reduce wildfire risk, improve wildfire resiliency and promote fire-adapted communities.